One of the more controversial weapons in Craig MacTavish’s arsenal this past season has been his willingness to call players out in the media. Robert Nilsson, Kyle Brodziak, Marc Pouliot but especially Dustin Penner were criticized in front of reporters by the coach, and for many fans that crossed a line, regardless of how much those players may have earned the criticism.
In fact, it crossed a line that MacTavish himself had rarely crossed in the past. From David Staples brilliant profile of the ex-Oilers coach comes this tidbit on the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals run:
Before the playoffs, MacTavish and his assistants set the stage. First, they made a pact that they would keep things positive with the players, pushing them hard to stick to the game plan, but never criticizing them in public.
That’s one of the big reasons why MacTavish’s public comments, particularly his public comments on Dustin Penner, worried me so much. MacTavish has always seemed to make an effort not to be overly critical of his players to the media, and his departure from that stance early in the season bothered me because it seemed to indicate that MacTavish was reaching a certain level of desperation.
From other coaches, such tactics wouldn’t have been surprising at all. Scotty Bowman, for example, often used the media as a motivational tool. As an example, here are comments that Bowman made on Pete Mahovlich during the 1976/77 season:
“I don’t think he’ll play next year… He says he’s not playing enough, but we’ve got three centres, Jacques Lemaire, Doug Risebrough and Doug Jarvis, all playing well most of the time. His record is the poorest of any forward on the team. Nobody on the team has been on the ice for more goals against than he had. You couldn’t say that he has been having a good year.”
But such an exercise, while not a surprise from a coach like Bowman (or his protégé, Mike Keenan) that exercise was a surprise coming from MacTavish. MacTavish has never been as critical as he was in his November assessment of Penner:
“When we signed Dustin we thought he’d be a top-two-line player. We thought the contract ($4.25 million average for five years) was a starting point for him, but he views it as a finish line. I can’t watch it, certainly not for another 2 1/2 years.”
“You can’t throw gratuitous ice-time at a player that’s inconsistent. It’s his competitiveness. The frustrating thing for me is he has the game but he can’t find it and you have to put the work in. He has a great set of tools but his legs are inconsistent. He needs more horsepower. He has to get his game to a level where he can help us. To this point, it hasn’t gotten there.”
I don’t like using the media to manipulate players, but I can’t agree with the people who have commented here and elsewhere that a good coach never uses that particular tool. I mentioned Bowman and Keenan above, but other successful coaches like Ron Wilson and Andy Murray have also made extensive use of the same tactic. I don’t like the tool, but it can be useful.
But when a coach reaches out to try motivational tools he’s largely abstained from in the past, tools that can be more dangerous to the one using them than the one being criticized, well then it’s like Lowetide said back when these comments first came out: the end times are near.