The firestorm began in early January, when former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson went on TSN radio and, in a rambling assessment of Phil Kessel's performance and personality – some of it positive, some negative – concluded that "you can't rely on Phil." Wilson went on to say that some of the Leafs' core players had failed under multiple coaches and, thus, "some of them might be uncoachable."
Since then the debate has raged – that the free-falling Leafs have two of the most uncoachable players in the game, Kessel and team captain Dion Phaneuf; and no matter who was directing traffic behind the Maple Leafs bench, there was not a blessed thing they could do to make Kessel any more consistent or make Phaneuf a more complete defenceman. Lots, including Wilson and his successor, Randy Carlyle, had tried and, to some degree, failed.
But, rationally, the concept of the uncoachable player seems counterintuitive. It implies that no matter how many approaches a coach might try, some players simply cannot change, once they've reached a certain level.
Coaching is many things – and in the formative years of an athlete's playing life, it primarily involves skill development. Someone with Kessel's abilities had to be coachable at some stage of his career. He didn't arrive fully formed as an NHL star. Beyond his teaching skills, coaches at the pro level also need to be motivators, psychologists and tacticians.
Just about anyone involved in the study of coaching will say close to the same thing – that while some players may be easier to coach than others, there is no such thing as an uncoachable player.
"We do research on coaching in my lab," said Gordon Bloom, a professor of sports psychology at McGill University. "We think good coaching is effective teaching; and part of effective teaching is good communication skills. Personally, I just think, yes, it is more difficult to get some athletes to buy into the plan. Some athletes have their own agendas; we know that. But ultimately, I think the job of a coach is to come in with his or her philosophy and sell it to the athletes."
Every professional sport has had its share of players who, for whatever reason, either can't or won't absorb a coach's message. Some, such as baseball slugger Reggie Jackson or basketball iconoclast Dennis Rodman, won championships anyway. Others, such as Allen Iverson, were significant parts of quality teams that didn't win.
But were they uncoachable, or just difficult to reach? St. Louis Blues veteran coach Ken Hitchcock calls the theory of the uncoachable player "a myth."
"There's no such thing as an uncoachable player," says Hitchcock, who has been coaching all of his adult life and has been working in the NHL since joining the Philadelphia Flyers as an assistant coach in 1990. "That's not true at all.
"Whether it's through an assistant coach, a leader, a captain, another player, or whether it's conversations about everything but playing hockey, experience tells you that if you never stop using all your resources and if you never stop trying, you always end up striking gold. You always find somebody or some mechanism to help get that player to reach his potential. Just finding the proper dialogue that hits home – that's your job. The guys that are good at it find a way and make it work."
Wilson's primary point on Kessel was his inconsistency – that while he's showed "obvious signs of brilliance" throughout his career, "his problem is … he's two weeks on and two weeks off. You just hope you can get him playing his best hockey for as long as possible; you can't rely on Phil. … He comes and goes."
What Wilson didn't say is that there is a long history of talented NHL goal-scorers who, like Kessel, tend to run hot and cold; players who go on a streak and then, just as quickly, their scoring touch vanishes and their confidence evaporates. In Calgary, Jarome Iginla, a two-time Rocket Richard trophy winner, almost always followed up an ice-cold October with a red-hot November. The San Jose Sharks' Patrick Marleau can score a goal a game for weeks at a time and then just stop.
"I don't think players lose their confidence, as if they were at the mall and it falls out of their pockets," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "I think the expectation on individuals to carry their teams is at an all-time high right now around the league. Three or four guys on every team are expected to score almost every night. And when it gets to three or four games and they haven't scored, they're the individuals we're talking about – whether it's the coaches or the media. A role player, a guy on the third line, can go 10, 12 games before we start talking about him, but the pressure is so high on the skill guys they sometimes succumb to that a little."
The perception that Kessel and others like him are uncoachable is fuelled in part by the fact that some of their NHL peers as so eminently coachable, that they are hockey-playing savants. Two examples: the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty and the Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews, who are probably the most complete forwards and defencemen in the NHL these days, and don't need a lot of coaching help.
"There are guys that play hockey and then there are hockey players," explained Hitchcock, who coached them both as an assistant on the 2010 and 2014 Canadian men's Olympic championship teams. "Drew Doughty is a hockey player. He's a guy you only have to tell once. He's a guy that knows the time, the score, the stage – he knows all that stuff. You don't have to tell him. There's him, there's Jonathan Toews, there are a number of guys that are hockey players. …
"When you talk to other guys in other sports, they view correcting weaknesses as a long-term project. When you see successful coaches and their teams are winning all the time, it's not just because they have the most talent. It's because they really get the most out of the players' strengths. They don't get all wrapped up in what the guy can't do. They focus on what he can do – and really build on that."
Also, in the context of a team sport such as hockey, you can mask a player's weakness by surrounding him with the right supporting cast. So, for example, if a player doesn't naturally backcheck, play him with a responsible two-way partner. Instead of playing three players with all the same dimensions, ensure that one's strengths compensate for another's weaknesses, and vice versa.
"If you talk to the football guys, they don't even pay attention to what the guy can't do," Hitchcock said. "It's why you see the platooning of players. It's why you see third-down specialists. It's become a specialist sport. I talk to coaches all the time and they say, 'He can't do this, or he can't do that.'… What I find with athletes these days is, if they feel your frustration on things they can't do, then the things they can do, they won't do."
And then things get worse, not better.
One NHL star who has corrected a much-discussed flaw in his game this season is the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin is a four-time winner of the Rocket Richard trophy as the NHL's leading goal scorer, but last year managed to finish with a minus-35 rating. Ovechkin paid so little attention to the defensive side of the game that he'd become a liability, the Capitals missed the playoffs and the front office – general manager George McPhee, coach Adam Oates – were blown out as a result.
But under new coach Barry Trotz, Ovechkin has turned that disastrous plus-minus stat around. He is a plus-10 on a team that is one of the most improved defensively in the NHL, and according to Trotz, "has been easy to coach this season."
"I got a million questions about Alex Ovechkin," Trotz said. "You've just got to be honest with him. You've just got to be firm with him – and he'll do what you ask. Alex personally is a guy who has won every individual award that you can win in this league and now he wants to win a team award. There is not a superstar who can score goals like him. But he's bought in. He's blocked shots. He's physical. He is a modern-day Mark Messier in a lot of ways. It has to start with your leadership – and our leadership bought in. They wanted a change."
According to Bloom, this is a critical coaching challenge in the era of million-dollar salaries, when financial rewards are frequently tied to individual stats and yet a coach's job is to get players to buy into a team concept. Bloom believes the most successful modern-day coach in professional team sport is Phil Jackson, and his greatest achievement was convincing the reigning superstar of the day, Michael Jordan, to put team goals ahead of his own stats.
"When Phil Jackson went to Chicago and Michael Jordan was there, and it was all about Michael and the Jordanaires," Bloom said. "Phil talked to Michael and asked, 'Do you want to keep scoring 50 points a game, or do you want to win a championship?' Jordan says, 'I want to win a championship.' That was a defining moment of his career – and he had him. [Jackson] said: 'Well, you're going to have to bring the other guys' calibre of play up, which means you'll be scoring fewer points in this new triangle offence.' It worked. The same thing in L.A., he had two big egos there in Kobe and Shaq and he had to fix that. His ability to manage the players and have a philosophy he believed in – sharing the ball, that Zen philosophy – the star players adopted it and everybody else followed suit.
"If I watch Toronto," Bloom said of the Leafs, "they just didn't seem to be on the same page. Everything was disconnected. It was not linked together. You could see it – which is the opposite of what I see when I watch a Mike Babcock-coached team. Everything is in sync, no matter who's out of the lineup, or which player has retired. It just seems to follow the same pattern."
Sharks alternate captain Joe Thornton played for two polarizing coaches known primarily for their motivational skills – Mike Keenan and Ron Wilson, who rank seventh and eighth respectively on the all-time NHL wins list. Thornton said both were experts at knowing which buttons to push with their players.
"I remember one night after the first period, we were playing Colorado and Mike Keenan came in and said, 'If you don't finish your checks on this guy, you're not going to play another shift in the game,'" Thornton said. "So that's all I did – just finished my checks. It was like, 'Okay.' Especially for a young player, they can have a big influence."
Wilson's favourite tactic was to use reverse psychology on Thornton to get consistent production from him. "Ronnie Wilson used to say to me, 'Oh, you got three points last night, so you can shut 'er down tonight; we won't see you tonight, don't bother to show up.' He was trying to say, 'Yesterday is yesterday and today is a different night.' So I think coaches, if they pay attention to the individuals, they can tell what motivates this guy and doesn't motivate that guy – and the good coaches find that. Everybody's different – and good coaches find who responds to the carrot and who needs the heck kicked out of them. That's a coach's job – to find that out."
Thornton also makes an important distinction. He is talking here about coaching professional athletes, which is different than coaching children. Children, in minor sports, need encouragement and instruction. Coaches handling professional athletes are concerned with getting the most out of their players night after night – and thus are more likely to reach into their motivational bag of tricks.
"With kids, it's all carrot," Thornton said. "It's, 'Have fun, go, play, enjoy yourself. Next time it'll work.' At this level, it's, 'What have you done for me lately?'"
Early in his coaching career, Hitchcock said he learned an important lesson about the benefits of a patient approach working with Robbie Brown, a preternaturally talented offensive junior with skating issues and defensive shortcomings.
Hitchcock was coaching the Kamloops Blazers and says: "I went crazy on what Brownie couldn't do – he wouldn't do this, wouldn't do that. Then I ran into Dave King. Kinger said, 'Well, Hitch, you're not going to change him. Why don't you just get him to do what he does really well and get him to do it often – and you're going to find, when he starts to do that really well, the other parts of his game will get fixed' – and he was right. So we never talked to Rob about playing defence; we just talked to him about everything around and with the puck. It seemed like his whole game started to evolve."
McLellan believes that if a coaching message isn't penetrating, the onus isn't always on the player. It is on the coaches too – to change the wording of the message so it becomes easier to grasp. Some of the language used by hockey coaches is too vague, he says, so it comes to mean different things to different people.
"We say, 'work ethic.' Well, what's that? The definition of work ethic to everybody is different. Discipline. When you say, 'discipline,' does that just mean don't take bad penalties? Well, no. Sometimes it means, are you going to the right spots on the ice? Sometimes we become the biggest roadblocks because we'll say, 'You've got to get to the net to score goals.' Well, if all Brett Hull is doing is going straight to the net, it will take away what his true skill set is, which is arriving on time at this hole and shooting it in that little spot."
In short, if the player isn't performing to his usual standard or the message isn't getting through, McLellan believes the onus is on the coaches to try a different approach.
"As coaches, we train the body," he said. "We watch what we put into it. We give them rest. We give them video. We work on the ice. I think sometimes where we don't always do well is the mental part – of reading cues at any given moment, and seeing if this guy is in a stressful moment, what can I do to help him? Very few coaches are prepared to do that.
"Our psychology is a little different. We take ice time away. We move guys around on lines and that's supposed to mentally jolt them a little. But to sit down with them and say, 'When you're stressed, I notice sometimes you do these things, and what can I do to help?' Sometimes, it's eye contact. Sometimes, it's a pat on the back.
"The other night, we had three players we didn't play in the third period and I made a point of going down to them and pulling them together to say, 'You're important. You may not be playing now, but you're important' – because that might be the moment they needed for the next night or the following morning."
It is a sentiment that Bloom heartily seconds. "My area is sports psychology," he said. "I work with athletes; I work with teams, and when there's a breakdown with the coach and athlete, I try to talk to the people I'm working with and get them to understand the other person's perspective. …
"Good coaches learn how to sell their program to their athletes and a big part of that is reflecting on, will people change? Some coaches, you can see it, they will never change. John Tortorella, I don't know if he can ever change. Babcock is always learning, always reflecting – coaching himself or talking to other people who can help him become better."