Coach Kevin Constantine Talks Sugar Land, Sharks, Penguins and Aeros

I had the chance this 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.

The Aeros are the primary developmental squad of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. Kevin Constantine was hired by the Wild this summer to coach the Aeros. His job is twofold: To develop these players so that they’re in the best position to help the Wild if need be during the season, and to make the team a winner.

This is Part One of the interview. We bounce around a bit and discuss various topics. Here, the coach weighs in on the city, his coaching jobs with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins, different coaching philosophies and his work, so far this season, with the Aeros. – John Royal

ON WHAT HE THINKS, SO FAR, OF HOUSTON:

I haven’t had much of a chance to really get to know the city, to be honest with you.

I’m in Sugar Land. And in a way I underestimated how much work it was going to require to get this thing [the Aeros] moving in the right direction. There was a lot of physical plant improvement. I got going a little late in the summer, purposely, because I wanted to relax and enjoy my summer. You don’t get down here until after the Wild are going. And then, boom, you don’t get a month. You get two weeks to get ready. So there was so much work that we literally lived in here and we’d go sleep for eight hours then we’re right back here. We are just now settled into a routine, I think that the idea of getting out and actually being part of the community will be possible moving forward from here, but it has, I mean, I have literally been here in Sugar Land. I’ve been in Stafford where I have an apartment. I’ve been downtown for games. I’ve been to the airport for trips. I went to one Texans game. So other than the Texans game, I haven’t been out other than to a restaurant. So that’s been slow for me so far.

ON HIS FIRST NHL COACHING JOB WITH THE SAN JOSE SHARKS:

He was hired to coach the Sharks in 1993, where he remained until losing that job during the 1995-96 season. He was the youngest coach in the NHL at that time, but some of his players were older than him.

I was the youngest coach at the time that I got hired by the San Jose Sharks in the league.

When I got hired by the Sharks there were 28 coaches in the NHL and I was the youngest. I might not have been the youngest ever, but at the time, I was the youngest guy in the league. I think was 33 when I got hired by the Sharks which in any era of the NHL would be considered pretty young. So, sometimes I look back and think I’ve been coaching forever but then again, I’m probably not considered old by the coaching standards of the NHL or in professional hockey. I’m probably medium or something like that; although, it seems like I’ve been doing it forever, but that’s because I got started so young.

I think in most industries, experience is invaluable. And I often cringe when I see a player go right into coaching in the NHL like some players do. There have been some guys I coached who went right from being a player to right to being a coach, and I was really happy for them in the sense that I liked the person but I worried for them knowing that experience is so important in any job.

I started coaching at about age 26, so by the time I hit the Sharks of the NHL, it was about my eighth year of coaching. So while I was only a couple of years older than some of the players, I was eight years older as a coach. And I think by that time I had probably taken on a coaching personality, and so I think it was not so difficult to coach even though age wise, I was with a few players in my peer group, but not from a coaching standpoint. If I had just been a player and I had just played with those players and boom, I was coaching with no coaching experience, then that would have been a lot more difficult situation. But I was well into my coaching career by the time I got that job.

ON HIS SUCCESS IN THE NHL PLAYOFFS:

Kevin Constantine is the only coach in the history of the NHL to take two teams, seeded eighth going into the playoffs, and lead them to victory over the number one seeded playoff team.

I did it twice. I took two eight seeds.

I coached Pittsburgh as an eight seed over the New Jersey Devils as a one seed. That Pittsburgh team may have in a little bit of a way underachieved during the year because the previous year we had been Division Champions. So we might have underachieved a little and then maybe hit a stride.

The San Jose Sharks team my first year they were the worst team in the league the year before, so to say that that team was underachieving during the year when they’d been the worst team the year before I don’t think that’s the case. I do think that Sharks team kept getting better as the year went on. We started 0-8-1. So we battled all year just to be in the playoffs. And then with a few games to go made the playoffs. And then beat Detroit, who had won the President’s Trophy that year.

There are some advantages an underdog can have. One, our battle was so strong to make the playoffs. We played playoff style hockey for the last two months. The other thing about being a huge underdog is, if you can find a way to win a couple of your first games, or if you can hang in there, the longer the series goes the psychological advantage goes to the underdog, because the favorites are wondering what’s going on.

Things just came together at the right time.

ON HIS TIME COACHING THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS:

Constantine was hired to coach the NHL’s Penguins in 1997. And he got that job at just the wrong time. The greatest player in the history of the team, arguably in the history of hockey, had just retired. And the team, which has always had financial problem, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

My first year there, Mario Lemieux had just retired. Lemieux is felt by many to be one of the hockey’s greatest players. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January of 1993 and would retire, for the first time, at the end of the 1996-97 season.

And Petr Nedved, who was a high scoring center during those years held out all year in a contract dispute. They [Lemieux and Nedved] were the first and fifth highest scoring centers in the league the previous year of all the teams. So to lose those two guys, well, the anticipation was we probably would struggle to make the playoffs. And at the end of the year, we not only made the playoffs, we finished with a better record than the previous year’s team and we won our division. And that was my blessing the first year, losing those two guys. And in the second year, the team, in the summer, filed for bankruptcy, so we went all year in a bankruptcy court situation where you wondered, pay check to pay check, if the players were going to get paid. In that year we were the eighth seed and we upset New Jersey in the playoffs.

There are certain principles, if you’re capable of sticking with certain principles, and one key one, if I pick five key principles that we try to live by, and one is to not worry about things beyond your control. And the players had nothing to do with bankruptcy. The only thing they controlled was their play on a daily basis, which for them was important for their careers, because whether Pittsburgh survived through bankruptcy or not, their careers were dictated by how well they played on a daily basis. So, we really tried to just focus on things we could control.

The sad part of the story was just after I left Pittsburgh, Lemieux came back. So my timing in Pittsburgh was during the Lemieux-less days. I wish I would have had the chance to coach him during that stretch.

Mario Lemieux became owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins by way of the bankruptcy, as he was the team’s largest creditor by way of monies owed through deferred contracts. He would return to play for the 2000-2001 season, retiring for the final time in January of 2006. He is still the owner of the Penguins.

ON THE BEST PLAYERS HE COACHED AND THE BEST PLAYERS HE COACHED AGAINST:

I would say, from a pure skill standpoint, Jaromir Jagr [one of his Penguin wings, now playing for the New York Rangers]. I would say from a leadership standpoint, [Ron] Francis [a center for the Penguins who was recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame]. I would say from a legendary standpoint Igor Larionov [a center for the Sharks], who would be a Wayne Gretzky to Russia. From a pure enjoyment standpoint Artus Irbe [goalie with the Sharks] who took Carolina to the finals one year in the playoffs. And probably Ian Moran [a defenseman with the Penguins] who nobody would know about but was just a great kid and a fun guy to coach. Those five names jump out at me right away.

As to the guys who were the toughest to coach against, there’s a long pause before he answers.

Scott Niedermayer, trying to figure out a way when we played New Jersey in the playoffs. Paul Coffey [admitted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004] when he played for Detroit. Those are both offensive defensemen. It’s a different scheme to try and stop those guys.

ON COACHES, THEIR SYSTEMS, AND ADAPTING THE SYSTEM TO YOUR PLAYERS:

Sometimes you want to pretend that you’re the creator of great coaching philosophies. Occasionally, a coach has a new thought. Most, 99 percent of all coaching thoughts, are things people steal or borrow from other great coaches, or read in a book. I just remember Doug Risebrough, [President and General Manager of the Minnesota Wild] my current boss, saying to me in training camp that it was my obligation to keep trying to find ways to have people be successful. And that if a person ultimately failed and I had done everything I could to try every way I knew how to do it, then it wasn’t on my shoulders. But I was obligated as a minor league coach to try to find as many ways as possible to help these players develop.

A lot of times you’re trying different line combinations to see what works. I think [right wing Petr] Kalus and [left wing Peter] Olvecky have been better individually since they’ve been playing together. And that’s only been the last four or five games that we’ve been playing together. Each of them separately on different lines did not have the success that they’ve had together. So, that doesn’t mean that’s necessarily the reason that happened but we’re going to probably leave them together just to allow that to help. And they like it. They find that they can talk, communicate and know each other better on the ice during the game. They’ve actually asked that it remain that way. And as long as they are having success, we probably would leave it that way.

ON HIS SYSTEM AND THE AEROS THIS SEASON:

We’ve always envisioned having a couple of different styles of play. And we started one way that might have been a little more conventional way to do things and just in one game, we saw things that said maybe if we try this way of doing things, it might slow an opponent’s ability in a certain part of the game. So we went to a different style of play. And that style of play seemed to have worked a little better for the team.

We don’t know if it’s the quality of the opponent that has been the reason for a little bit more of our success lately, or whether it was the change in the system that was an impact on it.

Within the current system you have room for more specificity in a player’s assignments. There’s ways to put guys that are more physical versus less physical in a role that accentuates those talents the guy brings. I know in this system we’re currently playing that it’s easier for a defense to pick a forward position and play it if you have to do that. There are more ways of pairing players that like to play together.

So those are some of the things that are happening with a little change of system and gives us a little chance to move players into different roles, and to see if the players have more success in a different role.

I think one of the advantages of coaching a team over time is you really understand your personnel and where they thrive, and you can keep putting them in an environment where they thrive. But for us, as a new staff, we had no idea who should power play, who should penalty kill, who handles the pressure of a third period lead, who should be paired together, which defensemen like working with each other, which forwards like working with each other, which system matches our personnel. We’re still in the process of learning all of that, but we’re making strides.

So ends Part One. I’ll return with more next week, including his thoughts on hockey for novices and the tug-of-war between player development and winning in the minor leagues.

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