DENVER — Go to any Colorado Avalanche practice and you’ll quickly be struck by two things, both related to Patrick Roy: one, that there’s no need for a whistle around his neck. The whistle Roy can produce with his lips is an omnipresence of high pitch, and his players so used to it that their ears practically dart upward like those of dogs to their master.
The other is his hands-on approach to running drills. This is not some coach standing off to the sideboards checking his watch and having his assistants fish pucks out of the corner. When the Avs are practicing a play, Roy is often right there in the middle of it, skating right along with the puck and barking out instructions as he goes.
When Roy proclaimed to his new team, on the first day of training camp, that he wanted to be their “partner,” he seemed to take things to a new level in that regard as a coach. And how has that approach worked out so far?
They might as well just give him the Jack Adams Award now. With 69 points entering Saturday’s game at Tampa Bay, Colorado is looking like a great bet to make the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference. A team that finished 29th overall last season, the Avs under Roy have been fast, fun to watch and play with the same spunky attitude that characterized him as a player.
His team isn’t where it wants to be just yet—the defense remains iffy, and some of Colorado’s young players have yet to prove themselves in the pressure of a playoff race—but it’s a lot further along to this point than anyone thought possible.
When the Avs adopted a “Why Not Us?” motto suggested by former defenseman Ray Bourque at a team dinner at his Boston North End restaurant early in the season, most pundits went “how cute.”
|Colorado Avalanche after 48 games this year and last|
|2012-13 (lockout)||16-25-7||39 points|
“We wanted to shock the hockey world,” Roy said.
They have. But can the Avs really close the deal and make the playoffs? Some still question whether they might not still be a little too green—Roy included—to withstand what figures to be a fiercely contested final third of the season in the West.
“It’s important for us to just focus on ourselves, to try and improve every day and work hard,” Roy said. “We don’t want to look too far ahead. It’s one game at a time for us.”
What has made Roy such a good coach so fast? While he has the high standards of any coach, players say he is a teacher, not just a sloganeer.
“He explains things to you, how to make things he wants done actually work,” veteran defenseman Jan Hejda said. “And if you want to ask a question or even suggest something, he listens.”
Watch Roy on the bench during a game. Watch how vocal and involved he is with every inch traveled by the puck. Many NHL coaches are curious in their stoicism on the bench, but not Roy. By game’s end, his tie is loosened, his shirt less tucked in and his vocal chords quite a bit more hoarse.
Roy’s famous temper was on national display on opening night, when he blew up at Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau and nearly pushed the glass partition separating the benches down on his head. But he’s been a model citizen since, rarely getting into it with referees or the opposition.
That opening-night shove, though? It had a great effect on the locker room. Here was a coach ready to literally fight for them after four years of Joe Sacco, whose hands-in-pockets, passive-aggressive demeanor wore as thin as shaved ice with players by the end.
It hasn’t been just a change in culture that has helped the Avs. Roy has real ideas about the game, and he quickly implemented a new system for the team. Defensively, he uses more of a triangle forechecking scheme in the neutral and opposing end zones. In his own end, Roy favors a cyclone-style system where defensemen funnel the puck up the middle to a forward with speed. While those are hardly original ideas, to a chip-and-chase team like the Avs of the previous four years, they were.
Early in the season, Avs center and Canadian Olympian Matt Duchene flat out said players had no confidence in Sacco’s system. “We knew it would fail,” Duchene told The Denver Post.
Now, there is nothing but dressing room confidence in management’s leadership and direction.
"We were losing all the time. Things weren't changing much. It was just bad in here. When you came to the rink, it was always just 'Groundhog Day' here. People were scared, people were stepping on eggshells," center and U.S. Olympian Paul Stastny told The Denver Post. "But now, on the rink and off, we're finally having some fun again. In the past, if you wanted something to change, you'd be told, 'Look in the mirror first, you gotta play better.' Well, yeah, I understand that, but in the past it was players on one side and management on the other side and there wasn't much communication. We have more of a two-way street now."
Under Roy, the Avs have a shot at posting one of the biggest one-year turnarounds in NHL history. Now that would be something to whistle at.
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995 for The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.