Today, Taylor Hall began the slow build toward his first NHL game by skating at the Edmonton Oilers’ development camp at tiny Clareview Arena in Edmonton. 500 Oilers’ fans came out to watch. Clearly, Edmonton is a city that knows and loves its hockey. So new Oilers’ head coach Tom Renney knows the pressure is on. How will Renney deal with Hall? And how will Renney affect Hall’s career as Taylor begins in the NHL? Time and history tells us that coaches can do one great thing for budding stars.
Years ago, when up-and-coming superstars entered the NHL, they did it slowly. Greats like Jean Béliveau, Phil Esposito and Guy Lafleur started gradually. Methodically. But that all changed in 1979, when four World Hockey Association teams (Edmonton Oilers, Hartford/New England Whalers, Québec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets) merged with the NHL. Suddenly, 18-year olds were eligible to be drafted. That year, the newly named NHL Entry Draft was held by phone. I remember sitting in a second-floor conference room in Edmonton’s Westin Hotel, watching Glen Sather and Barry Fraser draft Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson. And, with 18-year olds in the NHL, coaching demeanor and techniques had to change.
The first coach Wayne Gretzky and Messier had in the NHL was Glen Sather. He let them skate and create. Non-stop. The very next year, Slats kicked himself upstairs and let Bryan “Bugsy” Watson take over behind the bench. That grand experiment lasted exactly 18 games (4 wins, 5 ties) before Slats piped Bugsy and moved back behind the bench. Glen thought the players were being creatively stifled. The point is, the Oilers would never have become The Oilers without Glen allowing them to do it.
In Pittsburgh, Mario Lemieux’ first head coach was the never-dynamic Bob Berry. As boring as a coach as he was as a player. Didn’t stop Lemieux from scoring 100 points in his rookie season. And what about Sidney Crosby?
Sid the Kid’s first NHL head coach was 39-year old Ed Olczyk. When Eddie O made his Penguins’ coaching debut, in the season before the lockout, no one had any idea that the Pens would be lucky enough to draft Crosby first overall in 2005. Thus, when Crosby’s career began with 8 wins in 31 games, Olczyk was punted in favour of Michel Therrien.
It all boils down to something very simple. The job of a head coach, when it comes to a budding superstar, has just one description – give him confidence. Give your young prodigy all the confidence you can. Give it to him day and night. Give it to him on a boat. Give it to him with a goat. Confidence.
It’s exactly what Sather gave Gretz and Mess and Anderson and Jari Kurri and (for a while) Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr. It’s what Scotty Bowman gave Guy Lafleur in Montreal. It’s what Harry Sinden gave Phil Esposito in Boston. It’s what Toe Blake gave Jean Béliveau. It’s what Al Arbour gave Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies. And it’s what Tom Renney needs to give Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson – as each of them, in their own time, makes the club.
Watch what Renney does with Hall. Does he play him in tough situations? Does he protect him or does he throw him to the wolves? Or does he pick his spots? In Windsor, Hall’s head coach was Bob Boughner (just named an assistant in Columbus). Boughner helped make Hall into a junior hockey superstar. Can Renney help build Hall into the same type of player in the NHL? Time will tell.