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High tech or not, communication is key

By Harry Thompson, 08/15/09, 11:45AM MDT

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John Tortorella was shocked when he learned that his New York Rangers players were using their cell phones between periods to call their girlfriends or make dinner reservations.

To gain their undivided attention at the rink, Tortorella ordered his equipment managers to make a box in which players would deposit their cell phones and Blackberrys when they arrived and not get them back until it was time to leave.

John Tortorella speaks to the audience on Saturday.

Ron Wilson would be lost without his computer and the various programs he uses to coach in the National Hockey League.

It was a tale of two views of technology among the speakers who addressed the 580 coaches in attendance on the final day of the USA Hockey National Coaches Symposium in St. Paul, Minn.

Wrapping up an impressive array of coaches during the four-day symposium, were Jim Corsi, goaltending coach of the Buffalo Sabres, University of Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves, and Brian Burke, who will serve as the general manager of the U.S. Men's Olympic Team.

Despite their opposite views of technology, Wilson, who coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Tortorella said coaching still comes down to communicating with players and letting them know coaches are there for them.

“As a coach, you’re a teacher. You’re doing the same thing as a math teacher or a sociology teacher. You’re developing people,” said Tortorella, who spoke about developing the locker room.

“I think coaches get way too much credit when we win, and we get way too much credit when we lose. Don’t kid yourself. You’re a teacher and a guidance counselor. Coaches are important but players win or lose games.”

As a coach, Tortorella has won more than his share of games. His straightforward approach has earned him a reputation as a no-nonsense coach, but few can argue with his passion for the game, and his players.

“I think that players want honesty. They may not like some of your honesty, but they want it. That’s what strengthens the locker room. It makes all of them feel like they’re in it together,” said Tortorella, who coached the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004.

In the course of his 15 years of coaching in the NHL, Wilson has been ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing technology. From his days with the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to leading the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals to coaching in San Jose and Toronto, Wilson has compiled 599 wins, ranking seventh all-time in NHL history.

“Once my playing career was winding down,” Wilson said, “I began to embrace technology as a way to get my foot in the door as a coach.”

In this day and age, the 54-year-old coach says it’s important to be able to communicate with players on their level.

“In today’s society, you’re speaking a player’s language if you’re using technology,” he said. “If you’re not texting your players you’re missing a very important tool for communicating with your players.”

Wilson and Tortorella will team up to coach the U.S. Team at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. The pair, along with Burke, left St. Paul on Saturday afternoon for Chicago, where they will hold a three-day Olympic Orientation Camp starting on Monday.

But before they left town, Burke extended his appreciation to everyone who spent the better part of a week in St. Paul in the name of making themselves and the sport even better.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank every coach in this room for what you do,” said Burke. “The lynchpin to our game is the volunteer coach. Every person in the NHL owes you a debt of gratitude for what you’ve given to the game.”

Harry Thompson is the editor of USA Hockey Magazine.

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