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The Doghouse Diaries
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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"Typically the first sign of the doghouse is decreased ice time, followed by some form of verbal abuse. This is followed by headaches and diarrhea. Merck is working on a pill for it."

—Oilers left wing Dustin Penner

Alexander Frolov, a gifted Kings winger, seemed to be one of those rare hockey breeds, a two-time 30-plus goal scorer with a smooth stride, a snappy wrist shot and the ability to play keep-away with the puck in traffic. ¶ The question: Could that breed be a schnauzer? ¶ The turnover that led directly to a goal in an October game against Columbus wasn't what dogged Frolov. Los Angeles coach Terry Murray, among the NHL's least combustible, knows that mistakes are inherent in the game. (In hockey, shifts happen.) But to Murray's critical eye, Frolov seemed to be floating, immersed in a private game of shinny instead of viscerally competing in the red-meat world of the NHL. Murray was at the end of his rope, which meant Frolov was going on a leash.

First Murray dressed him down in an interview with the team-run, saying he was not the first coach to be exasperated with Frolov's lollygagging during the forward's seven years with the team. Then he didn't dress him at all, scratching Frolov for a game two nights later in Dallas. (Meanwhile rumors swirled in Montreal that the Kings wanted to trade Frolov to the Canadiens in a deal involving Andrei Kostitsyn, who had fallen out of coach Jacques Martin's favor and been dropped to the fourth line.) Frolov had two assists in his return from the one-game timeout, the start of a spurt in which he put up seven points in four games.

"It's not like you enjoy taking your top players out," Murray says. "But they can get in the doghouse."

Despite occasional denials that hockey coaches even have a doghouse—the concept is "media driven," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault says—there is irrefutable proof that, like the Mafia, it really does exist. (In an e-mail Blackhawks senior adviser Scotty Bowman, the most successful coach in NHL history, joked, "I don't know if I had a doghouse but will admit I had a Scotty Bowman Burial Program, which probably had more permanence.") Coach Claude Julien of the Bruins does not equivocate. He says, "My doghouse comes in different sizes. Some are small, so that you're always near the door. Some are so big that you can get lost in 'em."

"Doghouse," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson says, "is a metaphor for ice time."

Certainly diminished ice time—in Frolov's case, zero—is a leading indicator that a player has been relegated to what Blues president and former TV analyst John Davidson calls the Château Bow Wow, but the doghouse neither begins nor ends there. The player in the doghouse also becomes the reluctant star of daily video sessions, his flaws exposed frame by frame in front of teammates. Recalls Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier, who was billeted in former coach John Tortorella's doghouse so often he had a personalized chew toy, "You'd be on the ice in a game and make a mistake that you might've made before and your first thought was, I just know tomorrow morning I'm in the video. I'm gonna get talked about."

There is also an excellent chance you'll be talked to. Murray said he had more than a handful of meetings with Frolov before going public with his displeasure. In November, Flames coach Brent Sutter ordered left wing Curtis Glencross to skate around the center-ice circle during practice because that is what Sutter said the forward had done in the previous game—skate in circles. Then there is the Oilers' 27-year-old winger Dustin Penner, who over the past few seasons has endured gruff handling as perhaps the NHL's most kennelized player but now can look back at those times and laugh. Why not? This year he's been one of the best in show.

When asked during Anaheim's 2007 playoff run if he was coach Randy Carlyle's favorite whipping boy, the sly and self-aware Penner considered the question and replied, "Nine out of 10 dentists would agree." Carlyle, a Norris Trophy--winning defenseman who was not exactly Jack Lalanne in his playing days, continually rode Penner about his fitness. After the Oilers signed the left wing that summer—coming off a 29-goal season, Penner received an offer sheet from Edmonton that the Ducks' general manager, Brian Burke, declined to match—he fell to the care of a coach, Craig MacTavish, who was no more tolerant of the player's spare suet or seeming lack of commitment than the caustic Carlyle had been. "When I was in the House of Dog in Anaheim," Penner says, "[Carlyle] was constantly poking and prodding, but he was also on young guys like [Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry]. He was just trying to make me the player I wanted to become. With MacTavish, it seemed more personal. It was the difference between how I was being treated and the rest of the team, what was being said about me in the media. You pick up on it."

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