Team Canada's coaching staff will need to be the team's MVP if they are going to win 2018 Olympic gold in Pyeongchang.
Willie Desjardins is the head coach of Canada's men's Olympic hockey team, something he properly calls "the chance of a life time."
"The NHL was a great experience. I had a chance to coach in Vancouver … but things didn't work out there, so I was looking for something else and I've always wanted to coach in the Olympics or somehow be part of an Olympic team," Desjardins said.
"When this opportunity was there, for sure I would take it because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
He has wisely surrounded himself with a strong staff, notably Dave King. The 70 year old King's career has come full circle now. He was once the be-all, end-all when it came to Team Canada's Olympic teams, guiding three Olympic squads back in the pre-NHL Olympic era but he never won gold. Though he acted in advisory roles to Team Canada in the NHL Games era, he plays a much bigger role this time around. If you know anything about Dave King, you know the players will be prepared with absolutely all the information they will need to know for Pyeongchang.
Desjardins knows that better than anyone. The two go back a long time, some 40 years when Desjardins played for King at the University of Saskatchewan.
"I think what made him a great coach is he hated to lose. There are very few people that hate to lose like Dave. It drives him," Desjardins says. "He demands so much. But he doesn't demand more from his players than he does from himself."
King will be in charge of much of the tactical game planning. That leaves Desjardins the job of setting the culture of the team, establishing pace and tone, and building a team chemistry in such a short amount of time. Individual motivation will not be an issue at the Olympics for this team of castoffs, but the quicker the group can truly come together as a team the better.
That's where Desjardins and company should really be noting what Gerard Gallant has done in Las Vegas. Somehow - amazingly, inexplicably - Gallant has turned that group of expansion cast offs into one of the best teams in the National Hockey League immediately.
How did he do it? Hopefully Canada has been noticing.
First off Gallant, general manager George McPhee and their staff selected the right players to fit Gallant's style. Speed and hockey IQ were the two key metrics. They identified and acquired the players that fit perfectly for Gallant.
Canada's selection pool was much smaller, but GM Sean Burke and the coaching staff have done their homework. Hopefully that is a fit, too.
But once the team takes to the ice, what is Gallant's secret? I found some quotes that gives some insight.
First off, he's very much a "player's coach" and truly cares for their team and individual success. The players buy in to his game plan instantly and know exactly where they stand with the coach.
“I trust everybody. Everybody plays against the other team’s No. 1 line at times. That’s what our team is about – make sure every player’s accountable. That’s what we do, and that’s what our players do. They make each other accountable in the dressing room. I want everybody to play. Unless there’s a line I’m not liking that night, we’re going to play four lines. The only way you’re not going to play is if you’re playing bad," Gallant said.
Vegas' star player Jonathan Marchessault echoes those sentiments
“(The coaches) give us exactly the information we need. At the end of the day, it’s about executing and going with your hockey sense – and he (Gallant) knows that. He’s a coach that gives us a lot of confidence to make plays. If you miss, it’s OK, but learn from it, and don’t miss it a second time.”
Gallant is very much of the old Pat Quinn school of thought. It's not about hockey tactics or on-ice philosophies so much as getting the best out of people. The best coaches surround themselves with other coaches to come up with the game plan but they get the absolute best out of each and every player for the betterment of the whole.
The 61 year old Desjardins has had success at every level of hockey. He's won the Memorial Cup in junior and the Calder Cup in the AHL. NHL fans may only remember him for his last days on a dog Vancouver team that not even Quinn or Gallant could have resuscitated - they were that bad. Don't forget his first year in Vancouver he pushed all the right buttons to a surprise season. He also turned down the Pittsburgh Penguins to take the Canucks job - maybe not his best decision.
But Desjardins - like so many of his players - can find his redemption in Pyeongchang if he can get the most out of a rag tag bunch of Canadian hockey players everyone gave up on.
The Vegas odds might not be great, but we've all seen this year that even those can be overcome.