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New Wild Coach Aims to Bring Winning 'Culture and Identity' to Twin Cities

By Harry Thompson, 08/14/09, 12:00PM MDT

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Todd Richards has only been in his new role with the Minnesota Wild for two months, and already he’s feeling the pressure that goes with being a head coach in the National Hockey League.

“I was walking down the street the other day and a guy stops me and says, ‘coach, you have to get the players on the power play to shoot.’  And I haven’t even coached a game yet,” said Richards, who opened the third day of the USA Hockey National Hockey Coaches Symposium with a talk about creating a culture and an identity for a team.

Todd Richards addresses the audience on Friday during the 2009 USA Hockey National Hockey Coaches Symposium.

Richards was one of an impressive lineup of speakers to address the capacity crowd of coaches looking to achieve their Level 5 certification, the highest coaching level within USA Hockey.

Also speaking on Friday at the RiverCentre in St. Paul, Minn., were NHL coach Mike Sullivan and Hockey Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, as well as Mark Johnson, the head coach of the 2010 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team. Johnson also joined some of his fellow 1980 U.S. Olympians, such as Rob McClanahan, Neal Broten and Buzz Schneider, for a roundtable discussion.

The event runs through Saturday and wraps up a star-studded lineup of presenters, including Olympic coaches Ron Wilson and John Tortorella, as well as Brian Burke, the general manager of the U.S. Olympic Team.

Before getting into the similarities between coaching in youth hockey and the NHL, Richards wanted to point out some of the differences so he created his own Top 10 list:

  1. Dryland training is never done in the parking lot
  2. NHL players can tie their own skate
  3. There are no 6 a.m. practices
  4. After games I get interviewed by good-looking blonde sportscasters, you get confronted by angry parents in the lobby
  5. We travel by private charter, you travel by minivan
  6. NHL players don’t cry when you yell at them
  7. Most NHL refs have gone through puberty
  8. Postgame celebrations aren’t held at Pizza Hut
  9. I get paid for coaching
  10. I get to deal with players and agents, you deal with angry parents.

It’s good to see that Richards has a sense of humor. He’ll probably need it working in the high-pressure world as an NHL head coach. After two seasons of working in the Pittsburgh Penguins system and last year as an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks, Richards is getting his first kick at the can at the pinnacle of coaching. And not just any NHL team, the Wild, who are almost as revered as the University of Minnesota Gophers, where Richards was a star defenseman with in the late 1980s.

“Things have been very surreal for me, a kid growing up in Minnesota to now become head coach of the Wild,” said the Crystal, Minn., native. “But I’m a lot like you. You guys are passionate about what you do, and so am I. You guys are here to learn, and so am I.”

For all the differences between the grass-roots and pro levels of coaching, there are many similarities that tie coaches together.

"It’s the same X’s and O’s,” he said. “Players have the same problems and insecurities. We have issues with the referees. We deal with moody players. We deal with drill killers.”

No matter whether it’s the Montreal Canadiens or the local Peewee travel team, coaches need to create an identity and a culture to help their players succeed during the season.

“The culture is the same every year. The identity changes, depending on the personal you have. As a coach you have to recognize what your identity is and play to those strengths,” Richards said.

It’s up to the coach to help create that culture within a program, or a team. And it starts with a coach asking himself two simple questions: what you want from your team as a coach, and what do you want others to say about your team?

“The ultimate compliment as a parent is when someone comes up to you and says you have great kids,” said Richards, the father of two boys. “I think the ultimate compliment for a coach is when a player comes in and says ‘I love coming to the rink everyday.’ That means you’re doing your job. It all comes down to the culture you create and the identity you’ve established for your team.”

It’s up to the coach to set the example for his players to follow, displaying traits such as being hard working, disciplined and organized.

“If you don’t do these things off the ice, it’s tough to bring these things on to the ice. If you’re not disciplined off the ice, how can you be disciplined off the ice?” Richards said. “It all starts with the coach and with your leaders. You set the standards. It like telling a kid to eat his vegetables at the dinner table. If you’re eating pizza how can you tell your kids to eat their broccoli?

“You have to set that standard and follow through.”

While the NHL is all about winning, Richards said he won’t focus on tangible things like wins and losses, but on getting his team ready to play every day. It’s a message that he hoped youth coaches would take to heart.

“For kids the focus shouldn’t be on scoring goals and winning. It should be about having fun, working hard, doing things the right way,” Richards said. “Focusing on the process and let the results will take care of itself.”

Harry Thompson is the editor of USA Hockey Magazine.

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