Coach Kevin Constantine Explains the Difference Between a Good Fight and a Bad Fight in Hockey

This is the conclusion of an interview I conducted with Houston Aeros head coach Kevin Constantine several weeks ago. You can find part one here, and part two here.

Constantine weighs in on fighting in hockey, getting the proper mindset, his biggest surprise this season, the work done by the goalies, the team’s obligation to fans, his shot at playing in the NHL, and the nomadic life of the coach.

ON FIGHTING IN HOCKEY AND THE HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A GOOD FIGHT AND A BAD FIGHT:

There are two things that can make a fight bad. One is if a player has to take an instigation penalty to get another guy to fight. So you’re going to start on a penalty kill. You want to spend a minimal amount of time in a game on the penalty kill. So if you have to get an instigator penalty to get another guy to fight you, it’s generally bad.

The other thing is that fights are potentially momentum-changing events. One team has really got nothing going emotionally. A fight can sometimes raise so much emotion that it just perks the emotions of the team that isn’t. If you had another team playing a real bad game and you had a two-nothing lead on a team that really wasn’t mentally into the game, going and fighting another guy on their team could only potentially bring emotion to their bench. And give them a reason to start competing, and get them emotionally attached to the game.

So often you’ll find a team that’s down by two goals more likely to try to get a fight going to get their teammates immersed in the game emotionally.

I’ve coached 24 years. And I’ve never gone down the bench in 24 years and tapped a guy on the shoulder and said go start a fight. Never. That nuance of the game is something that, the guys who do the fighting, the one or two guys on your team that don’t mind that, they understand that’s their job, they learn that over the years.

I’ve never ever, ever said to anybody, go fight. It’s part of our game, and we could argue all night whether that’s a good or bad thing. I’m a coach trying to win games, and I’m only interested in its involvement in us winning or losing. The guys that do it don’t need any instruction from me on any part of it.

ON ACHIEVING THE PROPER MINDSET TO MAKE IT THOUGH THE GAME:

We try to have a real detailed way of playing. And then we try to have a real accountability to those details. And our accountability comes from the feedback a player’s going to get after he plays. And the feedback is a combination of the coach’s observation, the statistical charting of what’s actually happened during the game, and video to support all of that.

I think it’s better for a player to not worry about the result at the end of the game; that will generally take care of itself. It’s much better to just worry about your job on your next shift. And keep it that simple: here’s what you have to do; here’s your job; and you’re going to be held accountable for it via feedback when the game’s done.

And so now our players run to the board where that feedback is listed every day because they’re interested in how accountable they were to the job they were given. So we’re very results interested at the end of the day in winning. But on a per-shift basis, we don’t care about the win-loss results. We care about doing your job while you’re out there. And I think that it’s easier to stay into your job and be passionate about your job if you just stay into your job at the moment. That kind of keeps us not worrying too much about the score.

But I got to tell you, as much as you try not to worry about the score, our player’s confidence goes up and down with the score. Our player’s mood on the bench goes up and down with the score. Our guy’s mood after games is passionately connected to the score because when we put in as much as we put in, you just simply want results at the end of the day.

When you’ve invested into something you want an investment back.

Good athletes actually find the pain of losing to be a much stronger emotion than the joy of winning. Winning is great. And we’re all searching for it. And when it happens you’re happy as heck, but it’s even not as strong as when you lose because there’s a real hatred to losing. Based on how much you put into trying to win.

WHAT’S PLEASED HIM MOST ABOUT THIS SEASON:

Their willingness to work and get it better. We’re a really demanding staff in terms of discipline and detail and staying with the team plan and sticking to the team plan. And there have been little pockets of resistance to that. But we’re really pleased with the guys.

I’ll give you an example. We gave up a goal the other night to Worcester. [A 5-1 Aeros win against the Worcester Sharks on November 10.] And the people responsible, instantly after the game, wanted to watch in our coach’s office the video of that goal. You see a guy on a team lay down to block a shot. There’s a lot of fear in that. There’s some potential for some serious pain in that. But you see them lay down to block the shot because they care. They really want to do the right things.

If they ask questions, it means they care. And we get a lot of that from our players. So it’s easy to measure their care level by the questions that come, and from what you see from them on the ice: the physical sacrifices and the celebration with each other when something good happens.

I think they really, really care. That’s an unbelievably important thing if we’re ever going to be more successful than we’ve been the last couple of years.

ON THE AERO GOALIES SHARING THE CREDIT FOR THEIR GOOD PLAY WITH THEIR TEAMMATES:

Constantine makes a comparison to the QB only being as good as the guys with him, and how he needs the good play of his teammates to get the win when he talks about the job of a goalie.

I think Barry [Brust] understands that there’s a team up front that has to be committed to doing a good job in front of him to make his job easier. He’s smart enough to know that. But in all honesty I can point back to three games right now that without Barry’s goaltending we weren’t in it. At the end of the day we look like a pretty good team because we won, but Barry held us in it.

He deserves probably more credit than he’s given himself.

As for the other primary goalie, Nolan Schaefer, who’s been up and down from Houston to Minnesota:

I think they’re both great guys. They both have played games where our goalies have hands down won us some games. Hopefully we’re less and less dependent on heroic goaltending – we’re always going to need great goaltending to win – but both those guys are really solid people, really good guys. I’ve really had very few issues.

They’re first class people.

ON THE MIXTURE OF AGE AND YOUTH ON THE TEAM:

In this league you’re always going to be limited because of the rules. You can only have five older guys. That’s put in by way of the AHL and NHL agreeing that this league’s is to develop for the NHL. You don’t want it just to be an older league. You want a lot of young guys that are coming through developing. So it’s a great concept. You’re always going to have your limits on veteran players.

We do have veterans on our team right now that I think really can provide a wonderful backdrop for players. Guys like Serge Payer, Steve Kelly, those guys have had some real NHL experience. Erik Reitz has been a great captain so far. He’s got a ton of experience about playing in the city and playing in this league.

At the same time, we had a very enthusiastic locker room, and a very enthusiastic bench on Saturday.

Sometimes a youthful-like enthusiasm is a big part of winning. If you ever talk to people about Brett Favre, and how he keeps doing so good, the first thing anybody ever says is he’s got youthful enthusiasm. So I think our older players, even though we love them, and they’re an important part of our team, and they are some of our better players, I hope that they have the ability to see the youthful enthusiasm of some of the young guys and keep that. Because it was evident in our locker room this Saturday [against Worcester game]. And on the bench Saturday.

ON TOYOTA CENTER AND THE TEAM’S OBLIGATION TO ITS FANS:

When you walk in you feel like you’re in a first class environment. And AHL rinks can vary from vary from very, very average to being NHL/NBA-style buildings. I think it’s great that way.

Our obligation as a team is to keep being a team that is fun to come and watch. I think most sports fans have a pretty good understanding of knowing when guys are trying. And I think if they look out every night and they can see that guys are putting every ounce of energy into trying that goes a long, long ways.

And if you can gain that respect from your fans, and then on top of that over time – and I don’t know what time means, a month or two months a year or two years – you supply some talent that keeps you winning along with that, you know that our obligation is to keep showing the fans how much we care about winning. Because if the fans understand how much you care about what they see on the ice, and that doesn’t necessarily mean results, because there’s a talent level that has to go with it to get results, but if the fans can see the effort, and they can associate that effort with guys that really passionately care about doing something for our fans, then I think that over time that invites more fans.

We wouldn’t expect fans to support the lack of effort.

CONSTANTINE WAS DRAFTED, AS A GOALIE, BY THE MONTREAL CANADIANS:

For the non-NHL fan, the Canadians are the NHL equivalent of the New York Yankees.

For a long time, that was the highlight of my life.

I grew up in northern Minnesota, closer to Winnipeg than Minneapolis. And back in that day it was all antenna based television, and the Winnipeg channels came in better than the Minneapolis channels. So CBC and Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night, of which Montreal was the team in those days, was a big part of my youthful worshipping of a hero in sports. The Montreal Canadians and Gump Worsley and eventually Ken Dryden [many of you might remember Dryden as Al Michaels broadcast partner for the 1980 Olympics and the Miracle on Ice] were something I grew up with, even though I’m a Minnesotan.

And I was a was kid with pretty good grades heading for college hockey before pro hockey, and I was recruited by three Ivy League schools and RPI -- and no one down here will have a clue to who RPI is – those four schools recruited me. And Ken Dryden had played at Cornell, and so he called me in high school, as a favor to the Cornell coach, to try to get me to Cornell. Interestingly enough, at that same time we had a kid on our high school team, Barry Woods, who was calling all of the other guys of the team pretending, with three other players on the team listening, to be an NHL scout and getting you to brag about yourself. So when the call came, that Ken Dryden was on the phone, and my Mom told me, I was pretty sure it was Barry Woods pretending to be Ken Dryden.

So I almost blew it with Ken Dryden. But I had a good long conversation about hockey and goaltending. So to be recruited in high school at a very impressionable age by Ken Dryden – I never went to Cornell – then to get drafted by the same team he played for, was all pretty special for me. I didn’t make it as a goaltender in that organization, but I had a chance to go there and be part of that, and try out in the Montreal Forum and stop shots from Guy Lafleur. That was pretty fun part of my life.

ON HIS ENTRY INTO THE COACHING RANKS:

Most coaches that coach pro hockey have a previous NHL playing experience behind that. Mine’s totally the opposite.

I was living in Truckee, CA, which is near Lake Tahoe. Which is ten miles away from where the 1960 Olympics were held, where the US won the gold in '60 and I wanted to see the rink where they won gold.

And I just went in there, and was watching youth hockey one night, but reading the plaques on the wall about the 1960 Olympics, and got asked by a parent what are you doing, did you coach, did you play? I said yes, and yes. We need coaches really bad. Would you ever think of helping? I started helping.

I did that for two years as a volunteer. And during the second year of doing that as volunteer, someone said that if you work forty hours a week at something, most people get paid. And I said that kind of makes sense. I went back and finished my college at the University of Nevada-Reno, just because I didn’t think I would ever end up in pro hockey. I’d been a college player and I imagined that hey, maybe someday I could go coach college hockey. But you can’t do that without a college degree.

And I did that. And in the third year after that I got a job coaching in junior hockey.

So, it was almost by accident. Or hatred for carpentry.

ON THE NOMADIC LIFE OF THE HOCKEY COACH:

The only thing you can try in this profession, because you get your summers off, is to find a really nice spot, that you enjoy spending your summers at, and kind of make that your home. So maybe for four months of the year you have something to call your home.

For me it’s water. I had a place in Minnesota for about 10 years on a lake, and now I have a place in the islands of Seattle/Vancouver/Victoria area. So you try to get away from the game, regain your sanity, regenerate as a person. Spend time with your family during those times.

Everett was the longest I ever coached a team and that was four years. Every other team I coached three or less years. I spend six years in Pittsburgh, but it was coaching different teams. I coached three teams. The Penguins, the Devils, and a junior team in that six year time frame.

And the moves never get easier. In fact I think they get a little harder when you get older and you attach children, even though I’m divorced and my kids live with my ex most of the time. The moves actually to me get a little harder.

If you have two philosophies in life you’re fine. If you assume moving from city to city is just a part of life’s adventure. And if you assume there’s something good in every change. For instance I got fired by the Sharks. And that was the first time I ever was fired. And I was dramatically affected as a person for about four months. It really hit me hard. I’d never been fired from any job. Now, I get over it in about three days.

From there I went to Calgary. In Calgary, my ex-wife and I adopted our first born. He’s now ten. And if you made me rewind my life, and you give me my San Jose Sharks job back, and you say that I get to have it even through now, so it was seventeen years of coaching the Sharks, but I have to get back my first born, it ain’t going to happen.

I loved the Sharks job. I’d even like to do it again. But not at the expense of my ten-year old. If you just keep that philosophy, that there’s good in every change, there’s good in every negative situation, it’s a part of life adventure. It’s not that bad.

But packing is a pain in the butt.

THE BIG DIFFERENCE IN COACHING DIFFERENT LEVELS OF HOCKEY:

I’ve coached a lot of years. I coached almost half of my life in junior hockey. And then I have 7 years in the NHL. And this is my sixth year in the kind of 20-24 age bracket, and I would say the principles behind all of it are the same. The things players want at every level is the same. I just think the older player you get, the 16-20 year old versus 20-24 year old versus the NHL player, I think you get a less malleable, more rigid guy at each level. A guy whose habits are stronger. Whose opinions are stronger. A guy who has made it because of things he’s done and is a little less willing to maybe try a new way of doing things.

You have to have different strategies for each of those levels. A different way to encourage a certain way of playing. In juniors it’s almost as simple as saying this is how we’re doing it. The guys aren’t interested in questioning that. They’re still forming their hockey habits. Okay, that’s what we’re doing. But here [AHL], guys already got some opinions. The guys already got some ideas, but still willing to buy in and to listen. At the NHL level, even a harder challenge. Because now guys are making a million dollars, and they’re making a million because they’ve learned a certain way of doing it. And if you want to come in and have them do it a little different way, you’re putting their million dollars a year at risk because they’re not sure if doing it your way would make them more successful. And so the ability to get a buy-in at each level is increasingly challenging. But most of it’s all the same. Most of what works on any level is the same. Most principles that make teams successful, most principles that make businesses successful, and most principles that make teams successful in any sport, are somewhat universal: Discipline, work ethic, attitude, caring, team first, individual second. All of those things are universal.

The Aeros return to Toyota Center for two games, starting tonight at 7:35 versus the Peoria Rivermen, then Saturday, also at 7:35, versus the Grand Rapids Griffins.

The Aeros, after fighting to even their record at 8-8-1-1, have lost their last three games, including Tuesday night, 3-2, in Iowa, and Wednesday night, 3-0, in Rockford. Their record for the season now stands at 8-10-1-1.

-- John Royal


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