Last week Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan was announced as the new Ambassador for Sport Central. Sport Central was established in 1991, and they have provided equipment and bicycles to over 125,000 children in need over the past 25 years.
The day after Todd McLellan was hired as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers he received a phone call from St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. He thought it was going to a congratulatory phone call, but Hitch had other motives.
“I thought he was calling to wish me well, which he did, but he immediately went in to talking about Sport Central, what they were and what his role was with the organization. He asked me if I would be interested in taking over his role. I could hear the passion in his voice, and he is a very passionate guy. He really believed in the program, he has been a part of it since day one and from that point on I was sold and felt it was something I wanted to be a part of,” McLellan explained to me on my radio show last week.
We discussed Sport Central and then our conversation ended with some thoughts on the Oilers’ season.
Gregor: As an ambassador, what will be your role moving forward and how do you plan on helping out Sport Central?
McLellan: Well my role, it’s not a defined role. I don’t have
a specific job that I need to take care of. I believe in the program, I believe
in its effects. The equipment that the young children are provided is one
thing, it’s what they do with the equipment and the experiences that they gain
and I believe in those experiences through sport.
So I’m going to be there, I’m going to help them make
contacts with donors. I’m going to help with any type of young child or group
of children that needs it and I might be aware of it. I’ll be there to help
with any fundraising functions. Really, in a supporting role and anything that
they need from me and I’m available for I’ll lend my name or I’ll lend my time
to it.
Gregor: In today’s era can a coach
encourage players to get involved with a charity or is something the players do on their
McLellan: Well it’s something that I’m passionate about. I
think that if you’re going to live in the community and you’re hoping that the
community supports you when things are going well and maybe when things aren’t
going well, it’s important that you find a way to give back. Let’s face it,
anyone in the National Hockey League level at any capacity is very
fortunate. We’re all paid very well and we get basically the best of everything
when it comes to treatment, equipment, flights, you name it. There’s nothing
that we go without, so the time and energy that we do have, over and above
playing, we should be putting into something constructive. That can be coaches,
players or trainers, and community is part of it.
I know that our players do a tremendous job. It’s not always
recognized, it’s not always public, but their visits to the hospitals to see
some of the sick children, that’s not on television, it’s not on the news every
night, but it happens quite often. And just seeing the little ones smile is
really important. It doesn’t always have to be about dollars and cents,
sometimes it can be about the emotional part and our players are involved in
that. They donate a lot of time to other charities in the city. There’s a high school
program, Daryl Katz’s children have a charity here in the city and some of the
players have donated their time there. I’ve been with Minnesota, Detroit, San
Jose and now Edmonton, and each of those teams has their own foundation, each of
those teams does a tremendous job of giving back to the community. I do believe
the Oilers are maybe number one when it comes to supplying funds back to the
National Hockey League communities and it’s something that we’re all proud of.
Gregor: Standing-wise this has been the most disappointing
season for you as a head coach in the NHL. How has this year helped you as a head
coach? What have you learned about yourself as a head coach?
McLellan: Well I think first of all the word disappointment
has to be defined. We’re disappointed in the record and not making the
playoffs, but there’s been a lot of growth in individuals throughout the year.
There’s others that we have to get to, some have fallen off, some need to
improve but overall, establishing a team identity, establishing the fact that
we’re not going to fold our cards near as quickly as we have in the past,
working on our game, introducing younger players to the lineup — there are some
bright spots in the season itself. Even the fact that we’re playing as hard as
we can down the stretch here when it would be easy to roll over and play dead. So
disappointing in record wise, satisfying in other areas, but with work to do.
Me, personally, it’s a different environment and it’s been
different from day one when I took the job. I knew that getting in, I knew that
we had a tremendous amount of work and we talk a lot about the future down the
road more than we would the present. That’s what happened this year. Trade
deadline rolls around and we’re shedding and acquiring assets where in San Jose
or Detroit, in particular, we were adding assets to make the Stanley Cup run. It’s just a totally different environment. Something that we’re trying to get
to is becoming one of those teams where we add and get excited about a playoff
run, but we’re not there yet.


Gregor: Every opposing GM or scouts who I’ve spoke with after seeing McDavid for the
first time marvel about his speed and skill and some think he’s even better
than they expected. Many believe he is already an elite player in the National
Hockey League. You’ve been on coaching staffs with great players like Nick Lidstrom,
Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton etc, but they weren’t 18 and dominant. Is your
approach different with a player who is so dominant so early?
McLellan: Well, the best way to answer that question is to
say that Connor doesn’t want to be treated any differently. He wants to be a
part of the team, he wants to be a special player, he knows that he has that
skill and ability but he wants to fit in with the team and he doesn’t desire or
crave or turn his nose up at anything that isn’t the norm. He wants to be held
accountable, he wants to be taught, and he wants to fit in with his group. We
can still go after him as a player for delinquent play, if you will, but the
most important thing is that he wants to fit in.
Now, he is a special player — the general managers watching
him are correct. His speed is tremendous, the way that he handles the puck and
his vision at that high speed is very exciting. I think that the fans here in
Edmonton recognize that, maybe the fans on the road don’t quite get it yet, but
over the years they will.
There haven’t been many coaches that I’ve talked to about
generational players, but everybody has their hall of famers, everybody has
their long term superstars and as time goes on they mature a bit more, they
take over the team and the relationship between coach and player grows and I
think that that’s another one of those, not disappointments but successes this
year has been the growth of Connor’s relationship with the coaching staff and
his teammates.
Gregor: Todd, you’ve had a lot of young players emerge this
Brandon Davidson came out of nowhere in a lot of people’s eyes, and before
his unfortunate injury he was playing the most minutes on your team. Jordan
Oesterle, another player that very few people, maybe even the coaching staff
had penciled in as a player who could play twenty minutes a night and now he’s
doing it. Last night he played more power play minutes than anyone else on your
team and looked very good. As a coach, how do you balance the urge to want to
protect the player but then think, ‘I’ve got to keep playing this guy because
he’s too good’?
McLellan: Well, you have to watch. It’s interesting that we
live now in a world of analytics and analytics are done with numbers and paper
and formulas and that type of stuff. I’m a big believer that the best set of
analytics are eyeballs. You have to watch, you have to go back and watch the
game over, you have to look at them in different situations and realize that
they can do it. And we need to get them out more so that they can continue to
do it. It’s all based on evidence, you watch them play, you watch them succeed,
you give them a little bit more and it just grows and grows.
The player feels
the confidence the coaching staff has in them. The more he does it, the better
he does it, the team feels good about him and pretty soon you’ve discovered
that the player can play. And if we’re smart as an organization then we’re
allowing the players to go past the veterans. That doesn’t mean the veterans
aren’t any good, that doesn’t mean the veterans can’t play and can’t contribute,
but it’s up to them to keep their jobs, and if some of the kids are coming
along and outplaying them, we’d be crazy not to put them in the lineup and
promote them and give them ice time.
I think that that’s one of the things that Mike Babcock
always did very well in Detroit. There’s a strong group of veterans there but
if he saw a young player that could do it, he played him. Eventually the
veteran ended up losing his job, not because Mike didn’t like him or wasn’t
pleased with him as a person, it was just that young player was better. They
were able to maintain and turn their team over. We have to do that here in
Edmonton as well.
Gregor: Is that one the hardest part as a coach — when
you trust a player and he’s gained your trust and then eventually a guy comes
along who’s better? How hard is it to let go of that trust you have in a player
and let someone else jump over him as far as ice times and key situations in a
McLellan: It’s not easy because you’ve created relationships
with that individual. Matty Hendricks would be a prime example. He’s 34, 35
years old, the odds on him getting much better as a player are rapidly
diminishing. He’s nearing the end and we appreciate what he does day in and day
out for our team both on and off of the ice, but eventually he’s going to get to
that age where the body doesn’t allow him to do it anymore, and the unique thing
about that is that the player knows even before we do.
And if the player is a
good person and we’re treating him properly, he’s more willing to accept that.
We find a nice role for him and we continue to use him because he’s important,
but he’s allowing others to go by as long as they’re good people, as long as they
are contributing and as long as they have the same passion level as that player
allowing them to go by, I think that it’s accepted. It’s the cheaters, it’s the
ones that are given without working for that really upset the apple cart;
veterans don’t like that. Veterans don’t like rookies coming in and cheating
all over the ice and are just given things, then it’s a lot tougher. So it’s up
to us to control that a little bit as well.
Gregor: You mentioned that at some point
in the final nine games you would like to see Nugent-Hopkins move up and
slide Draisaitl to the wing and put all of your offensive guys together. What
is the benefit in delaying that instead of doing it right away?
McLellan: Well there is no benefit or a negative to doing it
now or later on. What we would like to see to begin with is that first of all
we would like to get Nuge up and running and play him in the middle where he
feels good. We would like to see what happens with three centermen, three
dominant centermen down the middle. How do teams match up? How do we handle it?
Last night we were able to pick on St Louis’ third pair of D, try to get Connor
out against them. They were big but they weren’t overly mobile and that allowed
us to do it with three centers. So we’re trying to experiment a little bit with
that so that when we move forward we have an idea of what we might have. We
haven’t had the chance to do that all year until now. We have had the chance
earlier to put Leon and Taylor and Nuge together on a line and we’ve seen a lot
of success that way, but this initial experiment will go for a little while and
eventually we’ll get back to perhaps the three of them together at some point.


  • Eric Gryba is hoping to play at least a few games before the end of the season. He is a potential UFA and wants to get on the ice so teams know he was healthy at the end of the season. He has been skating and is hoping to take part in a full practice soon.
  • Oscar Klefbom skated on the weekend, but not with the team. He increased the tempo and feels his conditioning is getting better. We might see him before the end of the season. The staph infection didn’t allow him to skate or bike for close to two months, so he is trying to regain his cardio.
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