Without question, Huskies fans came away from this past weekend in Mankato with a deep sense of disappointment as Tech dropped a pair to Minnesota State in a big series. It was the kind of experience that cried out for an in-depth analysis by the Old Dog. But I found that Coach Joe Shawhan did it for me in his comments after both games and during his Monday morning radio show with play-by-play man Dirk Hembroff.
Before we get to specifics, it’s always important to remember what Shawhan is captured saying on the opening of the show every week. “I am a Yooper.” True to his nature, Shawhan didn’t pull punches in his comments, although he was circumspect and didn’t name names in any of the critical comments that follow. At the same time, he passed along some very explicit praise to individuals, and it was clear he went out of his way to name those who merited accolades.
All in all, it was perhaps the most candid discussion by a head coach of a team that didn’t perform well that I’ve ever heard in a public forum. Granted, the audience of Mix93 in Houghton isn’t exactly a world-wide media market, but it was still public, and recorded to boot.
It started after a relatively poor effort Friday led to a 4-1 defeat. In his post-game interview, Shawhan said that “this team is fragile right now.” That alone was quite a declaration and not the kind of sanitized coach-speak that we so often hear in the media these days.
After a much better effort on Saturday that again ended in a loss due to a late powerplay goal by MSU, he added this bit in the post-game interview: “We need to find a way in the third period…to do what other teams do, which is bring their best when their best is needed.”
Monday morning, after letting the weekend sink in, Shawhan and Hembroff spent quite a bit of time discussing the challenge of developing a winning culture. This came up again and again during the hour long show, and it even included a discussion of some of the difficulties that former coach Jamie Russell faced—including a player mutiny one year—that stood in sharp contrast with the winning attitude that Mel Pearson helped build following Russell’s dismissal.
Here is a sampling of the comments he made about a winning atmosphere:
- We struggle (with developing) a winning culture.
- We have a long way to go.
- Why do we get third period performances like that when the game is on the line?
- We need to get that accountability factor from everybody and we’re fighting that.
- Don’t buy in to a softness style of play. When we play tough teams we don’t perform.
- We had that last year when we were Heckle and Jive, which team is showing up? (Yes, I’m sure Robert Louis Stevenson chuckled from the grave over that malapropism. And yes, I played the clip three times to make sure that’s what Shawhan said. However, the Old Dog is a bit dyslexic himself, so I could make that kind of mistake, too!)
- Buy in, and hold yourself accountable. (He then called out an unnamed fourth year player who was asking teammates to be accountable, but isn’t holding himself accountable.)
- There are no shortcuts. Softness will find ways of blaming everyone else. Hardness will find hardness.
- You get away with what you get away with.
- It’s getting disappointing to give up goals every time we pull our goaltender, it shows a lot (about) our strength on the puck.
There were three additional mini-discussions that further clarified both his frustrations and his vision of how a championship team performs.
In answer to a question about recruiting, he again raised the issue of ‘fragility.’ “We have a really fragile group. They read everything into everything.” In this dialogue with Hembroff, Shawhan noted that some players were apparently worried that better players—players that might displace them—might be joining the team in the future. The Old Dog has been around a lot of teams over the years, and, while I’m sure this kind of thinking creeps in to some locker rooms, particularly in professional basketball, it was a shocker to me. Most players who want to win can’t wait to get a better player to join them.
He also called out one particular player for taking an offensive end penalty while the Huskies were on the powerplay late in the third period on Saturday—a penalty that led to the game winning goal by MSU. The penalty was particularly distasteful, since that player had earlier complained about being admonished not to critique the referees. And while Shawhan didn’t name the player, anyone can go to the box score and see who he was talking about.
Finally, he said that “We got tremendous leadership last year from the upperclassmen.” What was clear in this remark was that, at least when it counts, the Huskies haven’t been getting that this year.
Throughout these discussions, Shawhan peppered his comments with “You know what I’m sayin?”
But he also had a number of good things to say, too. In most of these quotes, Shawhan didn’t hesitate to name names.
- We showed great resilience on Saturday after falling behind early.
- (Justin) Misiak, (Andrew) Bellant and (Raymond) Brice were great all weekend.
- Goaltending has not been our problem.
- (Trenton) Bliss played hard on Saturday (after sitting Friday).
- (Jake) Jackson was good on Friday and he was really good on Saturday.
- Colin Swoyer rebounded well on Saturday (Swoyer didn’t play Friday after “he didn’t compete hard at Joe Louis” in the GLI tournament)
- We battled right to the end.
All in all, it was perhaps the most open and frank set of comments I’ve heard from a coach in a very long time—if ever. But, as Shawhan noted, Mike Babcock once said he couldn’t bluff his way along as coach of the then-dynastic Red Wings. When he was looking at Nick Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull—all sure-fire Hall of Famers even when he was coaching them—he knew without question that those players recognized what was important. Babcock was certain he couldn’t tell them anything that wasn’t spot-on.
The Old Dog thinks Shawhan was treating his players with extraordinary respect in his rather astounding interview with Hembroff. If he didn’t think they had potential for high achievement, these kinds of comments would be worthless, or even destructive to the program. He’s telling them something that’s spot-on, very profound, and extremely significant. Are they listening? Or are they too immature to pay the price and reach for greatness?
With Bowling Green coming to Houghton this weekend, there’s no time to mope. Them Dogs need to put on their big boy pants and step up to the challenge. We’ll see what happens starting Friday night.