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The Doghouse Diaries
MICHAEL FARBER
January 11, 2010
Benched, berated, bullied and beaten up in the film room. For many NHL players, learning to survive a coach's wrath is the key to surviving in the league at all
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January 11, 2010

The Doghouse Diaries

Benched, berated, bullied and beaten up in the film room. For many NHL players, learning to survive a coach's wrath is the key to surviving in the league at all

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So did fans. The winger was dubbed Dustin Penne on Edmonton talk shows, the implication being Penner was a carbo load.

The 6'4" Penner now weighs about 240 pounds, just four or five pounds less than he did in 2008--09, though he looks noticeably sleeker. Probably not coincidentally, he is on a 74-point pace under new coach Pat Quinn, a dramatic uptick after two MacTavish seasons in which he averaged 42. MacTavish, who was fired after last season and now works as a studio analyst for TSN in Canada, says any disagreements with Penner were professional, never personal. "I'm happy for him," he says. "He's figured out a comfort zone and a way he needed to play. I just had a great degree of difficulty getting him to the level I knew he could play at."

With MacTavish gone, Penner's remedial work in the gym is over. "On the bike I'd have to burn 1,000 calories before practice and 500 calories after practice," Penner recalls. "Did it make me a better player? It made me tired. But it also gave me a new passion for the Tour de France." His ice time has also shot up by 28% under Quinn, to nearly 20 minutes a game.

"You look at Penner now, and a change of coach is being credited for the way he's playing," says Vigneault, who last season was publicly and pointedly critical of the conditioning level of Vancouver center Kyle Wellwood, who was cruelly nicknamed Wellfed. "My guess is it's a change in work ethic. For guys like Penner and Wellwood, it's about attitude. They found out what they needed to do to be successful."

"You have to read between the lines in what a coach is saying," Penner says. "Sometimes there's swearing or demeaning stuff, but I've always had a pretty good filter. I'm like, What is it he's really trying to say to me? So, 'You're a f---ing idiot' becomes 'There's something I've done that he doesn't perceive to be smart.' ... You tune in the part about what you can do better and tune out [the rest]."

Not every NHLer is blessed with Penner's perspective, especially in an era when players tend to be more sensitive than their tooth-missing forefathers. Wayne Halliwell, a sports psychologist who works with Hockey Canada, says, "Players used to look in the mirror. Now they phone their agents."

The doghouse, as Murray says, "has undergone a lot of renovations. In my Washington days"—he coached the Capitals in the early 1990s—"you could easily send a guy to the minors. If you didn't agree with how a player was going about his job, often you could have that player traded. With long-term deals, a salary cap and no-movement clauses, you're often limited to knocking a guy down a few lines" or publicly criticizing him.

"Tomas Kaberle's a great example of [a reaction to public criticism]," Toronto's Wilson says of his 31-year-old defenseman, who was second among Eastern Conference blueliners with 35 points through Sunday. "Last year he was fat and out of shape. Fifteen percent body fat. Now he's at eight, and maybe the best offensive defenseman in the league. You can see him go, making plays at the end of games that he couldn't last year. [Burke, now the Leafs' G.M.] and I were blunt with him last season and went a little public with it. [Wilson also benched Kaberle in a December 2008 game.] That's presenting a message and him responding."

All of which proves that you can teach an older dog new tricks, something to which Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward can attest. In his formative NHL seasons with the Red Wings in the late 1990s, Ward didn't need a Château Bow Wow so much as a kennel the size of Versailles. The joke in the Detroit dressing room was that Ward should have his name legally changed from Aaron to F---ing because that is the way he was generally referred to by Bowman, who once called him up from the minors but sent him back down after the morning skate. Ward presumes he had a bad morning skate.

"One time [the Red Wings] had played poorly on special teams and we were practicing the penalty kill," Ward says. "The puck comes to me, I stop for a second and then shoot it out of the zone. Scotty blows the whistle and starts screaming that I should get rid of the puck before I get it. There I am, wondering if that's even physically possible. Now we're doing a drill where the [defensemen] have to get the puck out of the zone off the face-off, and he's standing at the boards at the blue line. For me to get it out, I'm going to have to wing it right at him. At this point I probably haven't been in the lineup for two weeks. Off the face-off the puck comes to me way too easy in the corner—you can see [centers] Steve Yzerman and Kris Draper grinning—so I fire it around the boards and wham! it hits Scotty in the head. He's bleeding. My career's over. He blows the whistle and screams, 'That's how you get the puck out of a zone.'

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