KOSICE – This has been the year of the comeback. It all started at the U20 gold medal game on January 5, when Canada blew a 3-0 lead in the third period to Russia and lost 5-3.
At the World Women’s Championship, Switzerland blew a 3-0 lead and eventually lost to Russia in overtime, 5-4.
In the first round of the Stanley Cup, San Jose rallied against Los Angeles from 4-0 down to win 6-5 in overtime.
Here in Slovakia, there have been several comebacks or near comebacks. Sweden led Norway 3-1 only to lose 5-4 in overtime. Germany almost blew a 4-0 lead, beating Slovakia 4-3 after a ferocious comeback by the host nation that fell just short.
Enter Andy Murray. The only coach in Canadian history to win gold three times at the World Championship – with three completely different teams – he is as knowledgeable as any coach about how the game is played. He is here this year as an adviser to Sean Simpson of Switzerland. Here are some of Murray’s insights about how to mount that comeback – and how to prevent it.
Your team is trailing 3-0 after two periods. What do you do?
The first thing you do is you keep coaching. A lot of coaches are great coaches when their team is in front. You see them active on the bench, and they’re giving suggestions and are really into it, and then all of a sudden their team is down a few goals and you see them with their back, leaning against the wall like they don’t want to have anything to do with these guys. I always tell young coaches the objective is to keep coaching for the whole 60 minutes.
Second, you go into the dressing room and give the players a reason to believe that they can come back, whether you break it down in minutes, whether you change something tactically. You have to create the ability to get it done. As well, history shows it has been done, and if you have a team that’s done it before, you remind them of that.
Okay, the opposite. Your team is ahead 3-0 after two periods. What do you do?
To start, same thing. Keep coaching. But, I think you also have to be concerned about over-coaching in a game like that. You can’t come in and say, ‘We have a 3-0 lead. Let’s play tight defensively. This is what we’re going to do.’ The game is rolling along. You’re playing well. Remind them of the important things that have to be done, but don’t over-coach. Don’t complicate the issue and all of a sudden put doubts in their minds. The best kind of leadership is from behind, so the players have allowed you, as a coach, to be behind them. You have a 3-0 lead, let them play.
The third period starts and you’re down 3-0. Do you shorten the bench to give your scorers more ice time, or play four lines hoping one of your lesser stars might chip in with a key goal?
First of all, you take a look at who’s going for you and who’s not, and who you feel is putting the effort in. The most important thing is you’ve got energy out there. But, goalscorers are goalscorers for a reason. That’s one of the toughest things in coaching. You know you can play one of your plumbers, and he’ll play as hard as he can for 60 minutes, but he’ll never get you a goal. Whereas, one of your scorers has not played well for 40 minutes, but he has the ability to give you a goal that might give you a spark if he gets the puck on his stick just once.
Is it effective to change the goalie or call a timeout?
You keep coaching. Whether you change your goalie, change your personnel or how you use them, change your forecheck to something more aggressive. In the NHL, it might be trying to get the other team into a 4-on-4 situation where you have more room to play, so you try to stir things up a bit, create a bit of havoc on their side and get your guys charged up emotionally. Maybe a fight gets you going. Lots of things come into play.
Do you make decisions on your own or talk to your assistants?
A good head coach relies on his assistant coaches all the time. You’re always talking and getting their feedback. There are always some tactical things you can do to throw a bit of a surprise at the other team, or you work a special kind of a faceoff play or something. You have to give the guys something to believe in. You can’t just let the game end 3-0. One time, we were down three goals to Detroit in the playoffs when I was in Los Angeles. Late in the third period, we pulled our goalie on a power play and scored. We did it again at the end, and it worked again. We ended up winning the game in overtime.
How does it happen that a team can be playing so well and lead 3-0 and then collapse and lose?
Sometimes a team that gets up 3-0 gets in a comfort zone. If you had all the answers as to why that happened... they’re human beings. That’s one thing you can use as a rallying point, telling the players the other team looks pretty comfortable over there, big smiles on their faces. They think the game is over. We’re still in it. Let’s go. If you can get things rolling your way, they can’t stop it.
So you’re leading 3-0, but they score to make it 3-1, then again to make it 3-2. Do you call a timeout or...?
I think you call the timeout at 3-1. I wouldn’t call it at 3-2 because the damage has already been done. You also have to be sure with your timeout. You don’t want to create panic, especially now with the number of TV timeouts. You can use those to your advantage and say, ‘Guys, it’s a 3-1 hockey game. We’re playing solid here. We have a 60-minute game to play. Let’s maintain our composure and get the job done.’
Mats Waltin, a famous Swedish defenceman, played for me in Switzerland when I was a young coach, in Zug. We were leading in the third period. Mats was one of my imports. I was telling the players, ‘Let’s get it out. Let’s get it in. Get it out. Get it in.’ I was hollering that from the bench. Mats was a really quiet, classy guy. He leaned over to me and said, coach, why don’t we just keep the puck? I said, Mats, that’s a pretty good idea.
The other team can’t score if you’ve got the puck. So wherever I’ve coached since I’ve told my players about Mats Waltin. I’d tell them about ‘Mats Waltin hockey.’ So if you asked one of the St. Louis Blues or L.A. Kings players, they’d be able to tell you what ‘Mats Waltin hockey’ was because that’s what I tell them. Guys, we’ve got the lead. Let’s play some ‘Mats Waltin hockey.’ Let’s not give it away. Let’s keep the puck now that we’re leading.
Is it better to talk to the players calmly, or to scream and shout?
There are times for both. There are times when you need to tell the players that their play is unacceptable. We had one of those talks with the Swiss team after the second period against Canada the other day. You have to be strong. You have to show emotion to your players if you want them to play with emotion. And other times, it’s best to be quiet.
In 2007, you were coach for Canada in the gold-medal game. The team had a 3-0 lead after 40 minutes, but in the third Finland scored to make it 3-1, then 3-2. What did you tell your players?
Let’s keep the puck. We’re solid here. I reviewed a few tactical things. Let’s make sure we’re always on the defensive side of the puck, but let’s play in their zone. Let’s keep forechecking. What happened was really only a couple of shifts. We weren’t really under a lot of pressure. But we had to keep playing in their zone.
To me, the objective of hockey, for me as a coach, is you should aim to play the first 20 seconds of every shift in the offensive zone so the other team is too tired by the time they get to the red line to play offense. So if you try to protect the lead, or win any hockey game, why don’t you spend the first 20 seconds in their zone? That’s what I’ve always tried to preach. That means if you start with a faceoff in your zone, you have to get it out quickly and get it into their zone before you’re too tired to play offence.
Is there a difference as a coach if it’s a gold medal game or game number 27 or 52 of the NHL regular season?
The objective as a coach is to win every game. I call it “déjà vu coaching” where you know you’ve been there before. I remember at the 1997 World Championship, we were playing the Russians. We called a timeout in the third period, and I knew that what I was telling the players I had said before. After the guys had gone back for the faceoff, I said to myself, ‘Where am I? I’ve been here before.’ You mentally rehearse before games. To me, you’ve arrived as a coach when you have déjà vu moments. You’ve been there before and you know exactly what has to be said. And you want the same reaction from your players. That’s how you win a gold-medal game.