Coach Kevin Constantine Talks NHL, AHL, Injuries and Subtleties

I had the chance last week to sit down and interview Houston Aeros coach Kevin Constantine. We met at the Aeros training facility in Sugar Land, and spent about an hour discussing various things involving hockey, Houston and the coach’s life.

You can find Part One of the interview here.

In Part Two, Coach Constantine discusses dealings between the parent club and the minor league club, preparing for games in the AHL, the temptation of the big city lights, how to get players up to the NHL, and the subtleties of hockey. – John Royal

ON HOW THE AEROS DEAL WITH MINNESOTA WILD INJURY PROBLEMS:

Numerous Aeros, including goalie Nolan Schaefer on two occasions, have been called up from the Aeros to the Wild because of injuries. This can affect the unity and development of the minor league club.

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I think the Wild probably have been near the top end of the injury situation, where they needed guys up. Over the course of the year that might balance itself out. I think time will heal some of those issues, and help us with some of those issues. We’ll start to learn lots more about our personnel. Where to play them. When to play them. What situations to play them. It’s not going to cure all of our issues, but it’ll help.

ON HOW TO PREPARE FOR GAMES AGAINST OTHER AHL TEAMS:

I would say this is a very generic answer, then I would give you more specifics as it applies to us. I would say that the first 25 games of the year, and you’re at 13 [at time of interview], you’re probably spending ninety percent of your energy on getting your players to do and play the way you need them to play. And five percent would be here’s what’s coming from the other team, and this tendency is so prevalent that you’ve got to make some adjustments.

Then I would say the next set of 25 games you’re probably spending eighty percent on your guys keeping them into your plan. They get off track, and you’ve got to keep putting them back on the plan. Eighty percent of your energy is keeping your plan moving forward. You’re starting to spend twenty percent really honing in on another team’s top player, another team’s top line, another team’s fore checking style. And how you break out successfully against them.

Then by the time you hit end of season/playoffs, now you’re going to play a team in the playoffs up to seven times in a row. So you’re probably spending sixty percent [of the preparation time on] yourself and probably forty percent really cueing in on strategies that work against the other team.

ON THE DEMANDS THE WILD PLACE ON THE AEROS:

There are kind of two things. I say the first thing would be, and I’m sidetracking from your question, but it was a question I asked in the interview: if they wanted us to play in Houston the way Minnesota plays. We [Minnesota] want you to fore check this way so when a guy comes up he knows how to fore check. Or we want you to penalty kill like this so that when a guy comes up he knows how to penalty kill. And they [Wild] said they had no concerns over that. They felt that there’s only so many ways to strategize the game, and that we could do things differently here, and they would have the ability, when a guy came up there, to quickly educate him on the subtle nuances of the change. There were no concerns over that.

I think one of the really interesting challenges of the minor leagues is that there is a twofold obligation. One is to put the best team on the ice for your fans. And one is to develop players for the NHL. And I think in most cases, those things are parallel goals and don’t have much conflict in them.

But you do run into situations where, because we’re here dealing with the nuances of the team, that there are personnel things that, we as a staff, believe would create the best team for the next game. Where I think any parent team would view each player as an individual player developing for their use later, and they’re a little less in touch with the nuances of how all those players impact each emotionally and impact each other culturally.

And so those situations require a really good dialogue between the person with the Wild, who is either Doug Risebrough who’s in charge of everything and would be the final say, and then Tom Lynn who has a little more dialogue with us on a daily basis. Those lines of communication have to really be open for them to understand how we could have players impact our culture and make sure it’s mixing with how they want players to develop because of players being a priority as far as what you call prospects for them.

So it’s an interesting and ongoing and every day communication process.

ON THE BRIGHT LIGHTS/BIG CITY AND SMALL TOWN KIDS:

I think it is really a positive for most hockey players coming from small towns. Because I think, in terms of wanting to coach good human beings, good people, which every coach would prefer. As long as you get a competitive, feisty athlete, if you could combine that with a good person away from the game, it’s the ultimate coaching environment.

I think hockey is blessed with players who end up coming from small towns and maybe have a small town family oriented culture basis behind them, because that’s what you’re trying to create here. A family. So that’s a real positive.

In terms of bringing people here and keeping them away from the temptations of big city living, it’s just really, really hard. We don’t police that a ton. There are random checks of this and that. But it is impossible to survive the demands of what we expect from our players, not only physically during practice, but mentally in meetings, and mentally in their focus on what we’re doing. It’s impossible to have any type of lifestyle that would negatively impact your body or your mind and survive. You’d be exposed.

We won’t have to check. We’d know by your body if you were doing something the night before, or weren’t getting enough sleep, or something along those lines. We’d know just by your inability to focus because it’s so demanding that you just can’t. You’d be exposed right away.

ON TALENT VERSUS DESIRE AND SKILL SET:

If you look at talent, I would think what you mean by talent is on that pyramid as skill level.

There is a pyramid on the wall behind the coach. At the top of the pyramid is written Win. Below that is written Skill. Below that is another level: 5x5/Defense, Special Team, Tactical Role. Below that on the pyramid is written: Fundamentals, Energy, Hits/Blocks. And the bottom level is: Discipline, Attitude, Lifestyle, Honesty.

A guy can skate like the wind. Do wonderful things with the puck. We can see that skill is way, way up the foundation of what we’re interested in. It’s an important ingredient for sure. But there’s one two three four at the bottom level, three at the next level, three at the next level of things which we feel are much more important foundation issues than actually having them skilled. We’re trying to build things that are character-building-work-ethic-athlete-discipline-related knowledge-knowing-the-game-of-hockey as a foundation, and hoping that on top of that a player can add his own skill. And from that we’ve built a player the can survive any hockey environment. The AHL, and certainly the NHL if he’s up there.

In a lot of ways we’re pouring concrete on a house.

We’re not finished carpenters right now. We’re pouring concrete. That’s what we’re working on down here.

Without that base, not even a talented guy can survive what he needs to survive in the NHL. There’s a rare one or two athletes that come along on any team, [right wing Marian] Gaborik for the Wild, that has so much talent he doesn’t need much else.

Everybody else contributes in many other ways.

ON WHAT DIFFERENCE THE PLAYER WILL SEE BETWEEN THE AHL AND NHL:

Probably the pace that those players can play at. The pace is higher because their skill level is higher so they can move the puck to various parts of the rink quicker. You have to cover a lot of ground to keep up with that. So the pace that you have to play, and the pace that you have to make decisions up there, is probably a lot higher.

And so guys go up and that’s probably the big challenge. And it’s both mentally, the decision pace, and then physically, the conditioning it takes to keep up to that pace. The puck can just go up and down quicker there because of there’s more skill and they can do that.

ON THE FAN EXPERIENCE:

I think it’s almost impossible to not observe in hockey all of the activity around the puck. I speak at coaching clinics, and have for about ten years for USA Hockey to educate the youth hockey coaches across the county, and I ask them at the beginning of every talk what five things get them out of their seats cheering at a high level hockey game, pro hockey. And I get the same five answers every time. And I always have it written on a white board and covered up, and I say, I guarantee you what you’re going to say is going to be there.

And it’s almost always in the same order. It’s always a fight. A big hit. A great goal. A big save. Or some type of great pass. Everyone one of those things, except for the fight, relate to the activity around the puck. It’s such a fast-paced event.

At no other sport can players move at thirty miles an hour like they do in hockey. And then do really artistic things with the puck. It’s such a fast game that people would either appreciate the artistry of something moving that fast, athletes able to do something at that speed, or people may just enjoy the pure physical passion that goes into the game. Be it a fight or a huge hit or contact as part of the game. It’s kind of unusual to have the two mixed together, artistry and real physical intensity.

I think that’s what captivates. The people who are into hockey are passionately into hockey. They’re passionate fans. I don’t think there’s a national audience for it because it’s not played actively by everybody. So you don’t get that participation. And it’s not a great television game because seeing the activity and the puck is just difficult. It’s an unbelievably good in-game sport.

All of the other sports move so slowly compared to hockey. I think the pace of the game is fun.

I think no one could ever, as a novice hockey fan, come in and gather up a whole lot more than the activity at the puck. But I think once a person understands the rules, and then understands and can appreciate the strategies of the game, then eighty percent of what’s happening is activity away from the puck. And it’s actually more important to the results but not nearly as entertaining as what’s happening at the puck.

The Aeros return from a two game road trip tonight with the first of three games at Toyota Center. They play the San Antonio Rampage tonight at 7:05. Then there is Friday game against the Milwaukee Admirals at 7:35, then the Aeros close out the home stand on Sunday with a 4:05 game, once again facing the Milwaukee Admirals.

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