- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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hockey's equivalent of the driven fifth-grader who always raises his hand
because he has figured out the math problem first, is finally getting noticed.
After a month in which his Carolina Hurricanes bellowed, "Hey, look at
us!"--winning 13 of 14 games in January and improving their overall record
to an NHL-best 38-12-4--the team at last found a way to grab the attention of
the hockey world.
Honing that sense has been the 41-year-old Laviolette, who joined the Hurricanes in December 2003, after being fired by the New York Islanders despite leading them to the playoffs in each of his two seasons behind the bench. He began easing Carolina into hockey's new reality with a pedagogical drill brilliant in its simplicity. During preseason games he allowed his team three "new-rule" penalties--such as restraining fouls or delays of game. Starting with the fourth penalty, the Hurricanes would have extra skating in practice, a reminder to get with the NHL's revised program. Through Sunday, Carolina was fifth in power plays allowed.
The Hurricanes, rank underdogs at the start of the season, seemed to figure out life on the fly, a learning curve Laviolette will have to replicate on the world stage next week as coach of another long shot, the U.S. Olympic team. Tampa Bay's John Tortorella was deserving of that job--in 2004 he became the first U.S. coach to win the Stanley Cup since Bob Johnson with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991--but to succeed Herb Brooks, USA Hockey chose a coach with more international experience and closer ties to its program. "Peter's one helluva coach," says Tortorella, Laviolette's assistant at the 2005 world championships. "No team will be more prepared than his."
Indeed, Laviolette started laying out systems during Olympic orientation camp last September in Colorado Springs. With big, skating forwards such as Cole and Mike Modano, Team USA essentially plans to play get-it-deep, grind-'em-down Hurricanes hockey; Laviolette will administer a crash course on Valentine's Day, the date of the team's only pretournament practice. Says Weight, a three-time Olympian who played for Laviolette in the worlds, "He can get the best out of guys not only in a whole season but in a short tournament. The drills he does, the systems he puts in, are very effective [in a tournament]. He also knows how to motivate. He tells you how much your team needs you. He does it in front of the guys sometimes but never in a demeaning way. The pressure to play for the guy next to you is the greatest you can apply."
Laviolette has found the formula for a Carolina team bereft--pre-Weight--of marquee names, although rampaging 21-year-old center Eric Staal, whose 34 goals were just two off the league lead through Sunday, soon will be the most famous Staal in Carolina since Dean Smith's Four Corners. Last month Laviolette crunched numbers and saw that 17 of the 22 players on the roster at the time were on pace for career seasons. "This team," says veteran forward Kevyn Adams, "is basically maxing out." Wingers Cole and Justin Williams and defenseman Frantisek Kaberle already have surpassed their previous season highs for points, while combative goalie Martin Gerber, a first-time NHL starter, has been solid and occasionally stunning behind a team that forechecks like marauding dogs. "This is the most selfless team I've coached," Laviolette says. "That said, you can say 'team, team, team' all you want, but you need individual excellence within that concept."
The message will be repeated next week half a world away by a man who would jump through hoops for the Olympic rings. A Massachusetts kid, Laviolette was weaned on the 1980 miracle, rising from Division III Westfield State to become an NHL defenseman (12 games with the New York Rangers) and a two-time Olympian. He played on the high-powered 1988 entry that included Brian Leetch and Kevin Stevens (the U.S. finished seventh) and served as captain of the more modestly gifted 1994 team (eighth). After those Olympics in Lillehammer he saw his parents and wept. "No, that wasn't the last time I cried," he said last week. "I'm emotional. I always cry."
As ringmaster at the Turin hockey circus, Laviolette has a third chance to turn on the spigot that controls tears of joy. If he can infuse Team USA with the same sense of purpose he has given to Carolina, the Americans just might come in from the cold.