Dave Tippett played eleven seasons in the NHL, skating in 721 games which is 56th most in NHL history for an undrafted player. He was a solid checking forward, and when he was 33 years old he was out of the NHL and played one season with the Houston Aeros of the now-defunct International Hockey League, which at the time was slightly above the American Hockey League. He produced 66 points in 75 games, and the next season he was named assistant coach in Houston. Midway through the season head coach Terry Ruskowski was fired and Tippett was promoted to head coach, after only 42 games as an assistant.
Tippett was a natural to be a head coach according to his former Hartford Whalers teammate Ray Ferraro. “Tipp is really smart. He saw the game very well, and when we played together we all knew he’d be a coach. He knew how to teach and he could relate to anyone on the team,” said Ferraro.
Tippett spent three and a half seasons in Houston and won the Championship in his final year, which earned him an assistant coaching job with the Los Angeles Kings. He spent three seasons with the Kings, before the Dallas Stars hired him to be their head coach for the 2002/2003 season. He coached the Stars for six years, then was let go in June of 2009. On September 24th, 2009, Wayne Gretzky stepped down as the Phoenix Coyotes head coach and Tippett was hired. He spent eight seasons with the Coyotes before being let go.
He took a break from hockey for a year and then in June, 2018, he was hired by the soon-to-be NHL franchise in Seattle. He helped build their hockey operations department, but the itch to coach returned and the Oilers hired him earlier this summer.
Yesterday, Tippett joined me on my radio show on TSN 1260. In addition to the interview, we auctioned off the opportunity for a foursome to golf with him on July 31st in the Mark Spector Golf Classic. Big shout out to Allan and Mike who each paid $4,000. Allan’s team will golf with Tippett, while Mike and his crew will golf with Stanley Cup winner Colton Parayko. We raised $8,000 for Sports Central.
During our interview, we discussed golf and a variety of other topics. I discovered Tippett was quite the athlete growing up and he outlined what he is doing to prepare for his first training camp with the Oilers.
Jason Gregor: Well let’s start with the serious things: how is your golf game?
Tippett: You know what, I’m going to Arizona for a week or so, so it will get better. I actually played a lot a couple of years ago when I took a break from hockey and got my handicap down to mid-single digits, but I haven’t played as much lately. But I played a couple of weeks ago and played alright. So I’m anywhere from 75 to 85. In a scramble, I’ll just hit it as hard as I can and we’ll move onto the next shot.
But I’ve got to say I’m a goofy Canadian because I know there have been some other Canadian golfers who play like this. I hit right, but I putt left because I used to play hockey left and putting is like passing to me. At the club I play in Arizona, they call me a goofy Canadian for playing right and putting left.
Gregor: That’s a good way to get into the mental mind game with the opposition on the first hole.
Tippett: There are many occasions where the guys look at me on the first green and go ‘I just saw you hit right, how come you’re putting left?’ But putting was always just like passing to me in hockey and I played hockey left, so I just started passing or putting left.
Gregor: That makes sense. Dave, when I found out you were coming on the show I was doing a little digging…
Tippett: Uh oh.
Gregor: I spoke to one of your friends back home, and I learned as a teenager in Prince Albert you were quite the phenomenal soccer player! That in fact you and a teammate went over to Europe for a soccer skills competition. Is it true you won the skills competition?
Tippett: Uh… I won it for all of Canada and then I placed eighth in the Worlds in Europe. Yup.
Gregor: What was the competition?
Tippett: It was called the Adidas Skills Competition, it was sponsored by Adidas. Have you ever seen like in the States they have a kick, pass, punt thing for fottoball? It’s like a sports skills competition, so it was a thing that just tested your skill. You had a contest in your city or your town and then you went to a provincial contest and then one person went from each province down to Toronto and competed in the Canadian championship.
So in Prince Albert, I started playing soccer to stay in shape for hockey. I started working away at it and I ended up I was a Canadian champion and I actually played on the National team right up until I was about 16, something like that, and then hockey took over and I kind of backed away from it.
Gregor: Obviously you made the right choice because you made it to the NHL in hockey. Were you better at soccer than hockey do you think?
Tippett: Um… no. I don’t know. Maybe. As a young player, I could juggle a ball a long time and do a bunch of that stuff, but my passion was always hockey. I always thought I would be a hockey player, not a soccer player. I enjoyed soccer but I just liked hockey more.
Gregor: There wasn’t a lot of soccer players coming out of Saskatchewan at that time. It’s more of a football and hockey province. So to win in Canada and then place eighth in the Worlds…. your friend told me how your ability to dribble a ball was unbelievable. There’s something like a 300 test where you have to keep the ball in the air for 300 dribbles or something. You dominated it. Do you remember what it was exactly?
Tippett: The first event at the Worlds was you had to stand in the centre circle and you had to juggle the ball without letting it hit the ground. You had to do 300 touches with your right foot, then you had to do 300 touches on your left foot and then 300 back and forth between your feet and then 100 on your head for 1,000 points. So you couldn’t let it drop for 1,000 touches. I finished at 1,000 in that. So yes, I could juggle a ball for a while, that was one of the skills that I had.
Gregor: That is unreal! I know a lot of NHL players like to warm up playing soccer. I see it all of the time before games. True or false: one of your Dallas players thought he was pretty good and then the coach came down, made a wager and the coach won the dribbling contest?
Tippett: I think that it was a quick 50 bucks for me (laughs).
Gregor: Which player was it?
Tippett: I forget, I think it was LA. It was a player who walked by and said something about, I think it was a European player about juggling balls. I said I could do it 50 times on my head. And they laughed at me and I bet that guy I could do it 50 times on my head. I took my 50 bucks and walked away.
Gregor: So you still had it, is what you’re saying.
Tippett: You know what I haven’t juggled a ball in ages, let alone my head. I had four neck surgeries so I probably curtailed it. Four neck surgeries and probably a couple of concussions later my juggling days are over.
Gregor: I can understand if you wouldn’t use any headers, but if I got you a soccer ball you would probably get to 100+ touches with your feet?
Tippett: Yes I could probably find something to do there (laughs).
Gregor: Let’s talk off-season coaching. You are coaching a new team, so how are you preparing now? Are you watching a lot of video?
Tippett: I have a game on right now to be honest. It’s the third period of a game against Washington. And the Oilers are leading, what’s the date of the game? The date of the game is…
Gregor: That would be October 23rd maybe? When they won four to one.
Tippett: Yup, four to one. It’s 3:52 left in the game and they’re up three to one.
Gregor: I apologize, I just ruined the ending (laughs).
Tippett: All of the clips are broken down. It is okay (laughs).
Gregor: Do you go through every game of the year?
Tippett: Not every game. I’m probably going through 20 or 25. There are different things I look for. There are different situations in a game and then looking at individual players, I’ve got all of the video of all of the Edmonton games. I can get every Bakersfield game. So I watch. I try to get to know players, the structure, what some of them are familiar with and what things are going to tweak under what I’d like to try to do. I wouldn’t say I spend the whole day on it, but every day a little bit here and there just to get myself up to speed.
Gregor: When you’re watching an individual, are you looking for tendencies or are you looking to see what their reads are at a certain position on the ice?
Tippett: A little bit of both. There are two ways. When you watch an individual you have to get away from watching the structure of the game. Because normally a coach watches the structure of a game; you see how the players are playing together. I do watch some of that and when I watch an individual player it comes down to the plays that they make in a certain situation; at the backside of a pile, on the right side of a pile, things like that just give you an insight because players have tendencies. And then you can see them in certain times with just a skill level, making a play in a small space. That is stuff you can look for.
Gregor: So when you’re watching video on guys, you see their ability, because a player isn’t in the NHL if without ability…So are you watching for their hockey sense and their anticipation or even their positioning and if they were three inches to the left or the right suddenly he’ll be in position better? Are you looking that closely when watching individuals this summer?
Tippett: Yeah, it can be that in-depth sometimes. When your team has the puck, it’s more freelance. You’ve got to support the puck, you’re not going to be in a certain spot. There are controlled breakouts and things like that where you want to have, where there’s patterns. Things like that, but a lot of what I look for is playing without the puck and how you play as five on the ice or if you’re a power play or a penalty kill accordingly, but how the five guys play together.
And it’s funny how when you watch it close…one guy’s positioning, if he’s out of sync it really can make the other four out of sync. It makes a crack in what you’re trying to do. So I’m a big believer in when you have the puck you have five guys play together well and if your goaltender gives you a solid game, you can really defend well.
So it’s when you talk about system stuff, it’s about doing the right stuff without the puck and then you give yourself the chance to get it back again quickly and protect your goaltender.
Gregor: Protecting the goaltender, Mike Smith alluded to that too. He stated how as a goalie it’s so much easier if guys play the system so then the goalie can anticipate where players will on a certain play and he can be a bit more aggressive. So that five man unit almost becomes a six man unit in the defensive zone because it includes the goalie?
Tippett: That’s exactly it. Most goaltenders I know are really intelligent hockey guys because they watch the play, they understand what’s happening. Smitty understands what’s going on in the game.
I’ll go right back to when I first started playing in the league. My neighbour was a guy named Mike Liut who was really intelligent guy. We were like the odd couple. We would ride to the rink and he would talk about what was happening in game and I was amazed at how much he knew.
Another guy who was a really smart guy and people don’t give him credit for it was [Ilya] Bryzgalov who I had in Arizona. Really smart hockey guy. He could understand what was going on in front of him. When a goaltender has that understanding what is going on, he knows that the team in front of him is doing well and that gives the goaltender confidence, and they feel like they can do a good job. They go into a game, they know that they have a chance. So those are the things that I preach, playing like a team. Five guys in front of the goaltender, but the goaltender is a big part of that also.
Gregor: Where did you learn how to communicate so well with your players?
Tippett: Well I think the biggest things for me is that you’ve got to get to know them as people not just as players. So, you might not be best friends but you understand their situations, what they’re trying to accomplish. You understand their upbringing a little bit, their family situation, you care like it’s a family person and your team is a family. So as a coach you’re a part of the group too. You’re all trying to win together so you might as well care about each other.
As a player I always liked coaches who talked to you, they were always upfront. Sometimes I used to have a saying as good as I wanted to be, the game wouldn’t let me be good because I was sitting on the bench (laughs). So I would come home and my wife would say how did you play? And I said I played pretty good but I didn’t do much because I wasn’t on the ice.
So you understand certain situations, but it’s about being honest with players and giving players respect and they give you that respect back.
Gregor: Every player wants to play more so you can relate to guys sitting on the bench wanting to play more. When you have elite players like [Connor] McDavid and [Leon] Draisaitl, who were near the top in minutes players last year, they’re young and in their prime. Are you expecting those guys to be 20-22 minute a night players just because they’re that good?
Tippett: It depends on what else we have. If we have other guys that good too then their minutes will be a little less. It will depend on what the game dictates. If there are special teams that take a lot of time away, you’ve got to run three or four power plays in a row then those guys are going to eat up a lot of ice time and then they’re going to play a little more. But it depends on how the game is going and what you have to do to win.
Those are great assets for a coach to have. You have to make sure that you can maximize those assets, but I can’t sit here and tell you that they’re going to play 22 minutes or 21 minutes or 26 minutes or 18 minutes, you have to get into a game and see how it’s going.
Gregor: As a coach for a new team, how long is it going to take you to understand what makes your players tick?
Tippett: Hopefully at training camp. I’ve touched base with a lot of the guys so far so you start with some of that communication, but going through camp I’ll have a pretty good idea. The players that were there, the new players coming in, they’ll be a main part of the focus in training camp to really get to know them and get to know their games quickly. And then as I get to know their games and I have a read on the players then we try to form the structure of how our team is going to play and how we maximize each player’s strength.
It will take some time in training camp, but you’ll see the guys that I’m looking to get to know better and learn more about and try to fast track and try to see what they can do, they’ll be playing a lot of exhibition games. There will be some players that I know as well. I know Connor very well from the World Cup and talking to him. That’s a conversation that I’ll have with Connor on how many games do you need to play, but there will be other players that I need to get to know them and for them to have a chance to be on the team, or play significant minutes on the team, they’re going to have to prove their worth in training camp.
Gregor: Glen Gulutzan was here last year, so he knows the players. Do you want to come in and make your own assessment or do you like to get feedback from him prior?
Tippett: I like to get as much information as I can, but I’ll make my own opinion. With my coaching staff I try to let them all speak first and I’ll take a lot of the notes, or take a lot of things in and then eventually the head guy is the guy who has got to make some decisions. Everybody will have an opinion and I’m going to value Glen’s opinion because he knows some of these players very well.
Gregor: You’re in a hockey market now and fans like to know as much as they can. So what about the Moustache? Will the stache make a return this year?
Tippett: (Laughs) I haven’t had the stache for a long time. I think maybe the last year in Dallas I got rid of it. There is no plan right now to bring it back although my wife actually liked it, which was surprising to me. But I had the stache for a long time. There was a bunch of us in Hartford that we took our teeth out to play, so none of us had any front teeth. There was myself and Joel Quenneville, maybe Dave Babych, a bunch of us had big staches because we had no teeth. That was the cover-up for the no teeth thing. But luckily I’m past that stage and I’ve got some permanent teeth so maybe don’t need the stache much anymore.
Gregor: Last year Peter Laviolette had the bet with his team where if they won three games on a western road swing he had to wear a massive bull head during an interview. Well they won and he wore it. If your players bet you could that bring the stache back?
Tippett: Ugh, you’d have to have a pretty good bet for that one. I saw Peter for that one and it was in Edmonton. Yeah, that’s just bad betting by him (laughs). There are other things you could leverage for that, the team lunch, there are a lot of things that you could do.
Gregor: It seems many fans would like to see the stache, so maybe it will make a return. Thanks for your time and good luck on July 31st at the tournament hitting the ball right, and then putting left.
Tippett: I’ll be looking forward to playing in it. I’m an avid golfer so any time you get out and play, especially with some fans, and I can get up and play my first course in Edmonton, I look forward to it. Thanks for having me.
Tippett is an interesting individual. He renovated and flipped houses when he played in the NHL and he also worked on motorcycles. He is a very good golfer, and clearly was a gifted soccer player. Could you dribble 1,000 hits with your feet and head? Can your kids?
He has a wide range of interests and that will help him connect to players in different ways. He outlined his philosophy on needing the players to know he cares about them as people as much as players, and we’ll see that approach unlocks the potential of a few players. The Oilers need some complementary players to emerge and if Tippett can get the most out of them his chance of success will be much higher as everyone expects the Oilers top players of McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins to produce.
Who knows, maybe the players will find a bet they can win and entice Tippett to bring back his stache.