Edzo brings back reminders of ‘Badger’ Bob
The constant chirping on the ice, the enthusiasm and the encouraging, is reminiscent of “Badger” Bob Johnson.
The conditioning drill consisting of lazy strides along the boards followed by a sprint down the center of the rink, repeated as necessary, has been borrowed from Mike Keenan.
And the system that’s based on opponents’ eyeballs and backsides determining whether the Penguins attack or retreat resembles the one favored by Kevin Constantine.
New Penguins head coach Eddie Olczyk hasn’t been shy about borrowing, copying or imitating while running a drill or running a practice.
As for how intends to handle himself while running is team and his people, that’ll be pure, 100-percent Olczyk.
“I’m just gonna be me,” he said.
There’s no preconceived plan.
Olczyk doesn’t want to be a nice guy/father figure as Johnson was (at 37 that would be difficult even for a salesman of Olczyk’s caliber to pull off).
Nor does Olczyk want to rule with an iron fist, as Keenan still does (the NHL needs another Keenan like it needs more neutral-zone obstruction).
And Olczyk feels no sense of urgency to establish his credentials or put his personal stamp on the Penguins.
Edzo just wants to be Edzo.
“I don’t know any other way to be, and I have eight trainers in there that won’t let me change,” Olczyk said. “That’s OK with me.
“I’m just going to be myself.”
That was enough for Olczyk to produce his first upset in just his first week on the job in training camp.
Former Penguins winger Bob Errey, who has assumed Olczyk’s old job as color analyst on Penguins television broadcasts, predicted the new coach’s voice wouldn’t hold out for longer than three days when the Penguins took to the ice for the first day of veterans camp. And yet there was Olczyk almost a week later, barking away with enough bluster and gusto to rattle the walls at Southpointe.
The players will be hearing a lot from this guy.
Everyone always has.
“Eddie, he was a very vocal player,” said Penguins assistant coach Lorne Molleken, a head coach in Chicago during Olczyk’s tenure with the Blackhawks as a player. “I remember coaching him. You could hear him all over the rink.”
You still can.
Olczyk has attacked this latest hockey endeavor with gusto, in part, Molleken suspects, because this whole coaching-sans-experience thing might not prove as difficult for Olczyk to pull off as many perceive it to be.
“If you’re coming from the outside, you need to learn about the players,” Molleken said. “Obviously, Eddie’s had the opportunity to work in the TV part of it, and he knows the players as well as anybody. And he knows the organization because he’s an ex-Penguin, that plays a big part of it.
“I think the learning curve that he’s going to have is, once we start playing games, getting to know the other coaches, how they rotate their lines, how they mix and match against our team. That’s something that he’ll learn as we go along.”
Olczyk always paid close attention to such details of the game during his 16 seasons as an NHL player.
Those and other NHL-related experiences give him an advantage, one that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach Michel Therrien didn’t have when he took over an NHL bench for the first time in Montreal.
“I remember the first day that I came into the NHL, it was in the middle of the season, you want to establish the way you’ll run your practice, the tempo,” Therrien said. “And the players are looking.
“He’s been around the NHL, as a player and working in the media, so he knows how the NHL works. It was different for me. I never played in the NHL. Everything was brand new for me. You counted on people around you a lot. You had to make sure you had good people around you and they were giving 100 percent. That’s what he has right now.
“In junior, the minor leagues or the NHL, there’s a job to be done. To do that job you have to be well prepared and I know he’s well prepared.”
In addition to preparation, Olczyk has embraced communication as a staple of his administration. And while communication has long been a stated goal by a succession of Penguins head coaches since the profoundly incommunicative Pierre Creamer, Olczyk’s efforts along those lines have been nothing short of ground-breaking.
He’s fielded post-practice questions in a new interview room at Southpointe, and will do so in another new area designed for such purposes at Mellon Arena following games. He’s showed up in studio when asked to appear on radio stations for brief segments as a guest. And he’ll host members of the local media this week for an informal, off-the-record get-together at the Arena designed to explain his philosophy and the Penguins’ system, to ensure that those who cover the team are on the same page with the coach and the players.
Olczyk has even met with groups of fans over lunch in an effort to find out why they decided not to renew their season tickets and, perhaps, to change their minds and keep them on board.
If he gets his points across to his players halfway as effectively, the Penguins might as well go ahead and start planning a Stanley Cup parade.
Already, Olczyk is well on the way to earning their respect and trust, which is an absolutel must according to Molleken, part of a staff that also includes holdover assistants Randy Hillier and Joe Mullen.
“As coaches, each and every day you have to prove yourself,” Molleken said. “You do that through preparation and communication. Each and every day, we’re going to have to work extremely hard and earn that from the payers. And when you do that, it’s vice-versa, the players will lay everything on the line for you.
“Our group of players, for the most part, are young and eager and willing to learn, and we’ve got some tremendous leadership in this room with Mario (Lemieux) and Kelly Buchberger and Marty Straka. They’re the type of guys that will hold everybody accountable in the locker room.”
Molleken helped achieve that necessary trust and respect in Chicago by forging relationships with his veteran players.
“The first game I coached at the National Hockey League level was a road game at St. Louis,” he said. “I leaned very heavily on the veterans, Doug Gilmour, Chris Chelios, Tony Amonte, Alexei Zhamnov, Eddie Olczyk.
“I can always remember Chris Chelios walking up to me on the airplane and asking me if he could talk to me for 10 minutes when we got to St. Louis. Well, two hours later he left my room. That’s the approach I took. I relied very heavily on opinions from veteran players that have been through the battles and wars and know what it takes to succeed.”
Molleken saw such summits as two-way streets much more than he did allowing the inmates to run the asylum and/or dictate policy.
“It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, players need direction, and with that direction, that’s where your team play comes into place,” he said. “Sometimes, coaches take for granted when you get to this level, you think the players know everything. Well, they don’t, and it’s the same in any professional sport.
“That’s where the coaching and teaching comes in.”
That’s a concept Olczyk already has embraced with Lemieux, and one Olczyk may have borrowed from any number of NHL coaches.
“We discuss everything,” Lemieux said. “That’s something we talked about this summer. He wants me to communicate with him.
“Even Scotty Bowman and all these guys, they wanted the input of the top players. It’s important to communicate, but the final decision is the coaching staff’s, and we have a good coaching staff now that is able to take responsibilities. I have a lot of confidence in them.”
In Olczyk in particular.
“He’s been around this team for a long time,” Lemieux said. “He’s been in the NHL for a long time. He knows the players. He knows, I’m sure, how to react in certain situations. He doesn’t have any experience, and Lorne is going to help him quite a bit in that department.
“Absolutely, he’s respected throughout the hockey world. There’s not one person that I’ve met that doesn’t like Edzo and respect him for what he’s done over his career. That’s not going to change.”
Buchberger, a former NHL captain and, like Lemieux, a former Stanley Cup winner, echoed Lemieux’s sentiments, even though Buchberger is more new to the Penguins’ organization as a player than Olczyk is to coaching.
“From playing against him for so many years, he was a very smart player, one that always knew the right place to be at the right time,” Buchberger said. “Obviously, we know the offensive stats that he had. I just think he’s going to bring all that into this season, his intelligence about the game, and he’s going to make us a better team.
“There’s no question we all respect him and what he’s done. There’s no question we’re all going to play hard for him. The guys want to work hard for him and play hard for him, and when you have that, you’re going to win.”
Olczyk intends to win through defense, through forechecking that turns aggressive when there’s a loose puck to be chased down in the opponent’s end, and through responsible, calculated play in the neutral zone when the other team is coming up ice with a head of steam.
“Edzo wants to have pressure in all zones if we have a chance to get the loose puck,” Lemieux said. “If we don’t, we’ll sit back like the rest of the league.”
What the system lacks in aesthetics and excitement, it makes up for in effectiveness.
Job One, Olczyk had stressed, was to fix the neutral zone and the defensive end. And heading into Friday night’s exhibition action at the Arena against Columbus, the Penguins hadn’t allowed an even-strength goal in three straight preseason games.
For a team as porous as the Penguins have been in allowing goals in recent seasons, that speaks volumes, even in games that don’t count.
Although he’s trying his hand at coaching for the first time, don’t expect Olczyk to be surprised.
If there’s any advice to be passed along, chances are he already has heard it.
“It’s what you do with it, really,” he said. “I’ve talked to enough people that I respect very much, people outside of our organization and (Penguins General Manager) Craig (Patrick) and EJ (assistant GM Eddie Johnston); I talked to Chico (Rick Kehoe, Olczyk’s predecessor behind the Penguins bench) a couple of times.
“There’s a way to go about it and our staff has met numerous times to make sure that we have everything ready to go.”
Chances are they’ll still be caught off guard on occasion, but that’s OK with Edzo, too.
“Sometimes you gotta fly by the seat of your pants,” he said.
Although that’s nothing new for the Penguins, somehow it’s never sounded so good.