Benched, berated, bullied and beaten up in the film room. For many NHL players, learning to survive a coach's wrath is the key to surviving in the league at all
"Typically the first sign of the doghouse is decreased ice time, followed by some form of verbal abuse. This is followed by headaches and diarrhea. Merck is working on a pill for it."
—Oilers left wing Dustin Penner
Alexander Frolov, a gifted Kings winger, seemed to be one of those rare hockey breeds, a two-time 30-plus goal scorer with a smooth stride, a snappy wrist shot and the ability to play keep-away with the puck in traffic. ¶ The question: Could that breed be a schnauzer? ¶ The turnover that led directly to a goal in an October game against Columbus wasn't what dogged Frolov. Los Angeles coach Terry Murray, among the NHL's least combustible, knows that mistakes are inherent in the game. (In hockey, shifts happen.) But to Murray's critical eye, Frolov seemed to be floating, immersed in a private game of shinny instead of viscerally competing in the red-meat world of the NHL. Murray was at the end of his rope, which meant Frolov was going on a leash.
First Murray dressed him down in an interview with the team-run LAKingsinsider.com, saying he was not the first coach to be exasperated with Frolov's lollygagging during the forward's seven years with the team. Then he didn't dress him at all, scratching Frolov for a game two nights later in Dallas. (Meanwhile rumors swirled in Montreal that the Kings wanted to trade Frolov to the Canadiens in a deal involving Andrei Kostitsyn, who had fallen out of coach Jacques Martin's favor and been dropped to the fourth line.) Frolov had two assists in his return from the one-game timeout, the start of a spurt in which he put up seven points in four games.
"It's not like you enjoy taking your top players out," Murray says. "But they can get in the doghouse."
Despite occasional denials that hockey coaches even have a doghouse—the concept is "media driven," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault says—there is irrefutable proof that, like the Mafia, it really does exist. (In an e-mail Blackhawks senior adviser Scotty Bowman, the most successful coach in NHL history, joked, "I don't know if I had a doghouse but will admit I had a Scotty Bowman Burial Program, which probably had more permanence.") Coach Claude Julien of the Bruins does not equivocate. He says, "My doghouse comes in different sizes. Some are small, so that you're always near the door. Some are so big that you can get lost in 'em."
"Doghouse," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson says, "is a metaphor for ice time."
Certainly diminished ice time—in Frolov's case, zero—is a leading indicator that a player has been relegated to what Blues president and former TV analyst John Davidson calls the Château Bow Wow, but the doghouse neither begins nor ends there. The player in the doghouse also becomes the reluctant star of daily video sessions, his flaws exposed frame by frame in front of teammates. Recalls Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier, who was billeted in former coach John Tortorella's doghouse so often he had a personalized chew toy, "You'd be on the ice in a game and make a mistake that you might've made before and your first thought was, I just know tomorrow morning I'm in the video. I'm gonna get talked about."
There is also an excellent chance you'll be talked to. Murray said he had more than a handful of meetings with Frolov before going public with his displeasure. In November, Flames coach Brent Sutter ordered left wing Curtis Glencross to skate around the center-ice circle during practice because that is what Sutter said the forward had done in the previous game—skate in circles. Then there is the Oilers' 27-year-old winger Dustin Penner, who over the past few seasons has endured gruff handling as perhaps the NHL's most kennelized player but now can look back at those times and laugh. Why not? This year he's been one of the best in show.
When asked during Anaheim's 2007 playoff run if he was coach Randy Carlyle's favorite whipping boy, the sly and self-aware Penner considered the question and replied, "Nine out of 10 dentists would agree." Carlyle, a Norris Trophy--winning defenseman who was not exactly Jack Lalanne in his playing days, continually rode Penner about his fitness. After the Oilers signed the left wing that summer—coming off a 29-goal season, Penner received an offer sheet from Edmonton that the Ducks' general manager, Brian Burke, declined to match—he fell to the care of a coach, Craig MacTavish, who was no more tolerant of the player's spare suet or seeming lack of commitment than the caustic Carlyle had been. "When I was in the House of Dog in Anaheim," Penner says, "[Carlyle] was constantly poking and prodding, but he was also on young guys like [Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry]. He was just trying to make me the player I wanted to become. With MacTavish, it seemed more personal. It was the difference between how I was being treated and the rest of the team, what was being said about me in the media. You pick up on it."
So did fans. The winger was dubbed Dustin Penne on Edmonton talk shows, the implication being Penner was a carbo load.
The 6'4" Penner now weighs about 240 pounds, just four or five pounds less than he did in 2008--09, though he looks noticeably sleeker. Probably not coincidentally, he is on a 74-point pace under new coach Pat Quinn, a dramatic uptick after two MacTavish seasons in which he averaged 42. MacTavish, who was fired after last season and now works as a studio analyst for TSN in Canada, says any disagreements with Penner were professional, never personal. "I'm happy for him," he says. "He's figured out a comfort zone and a way he needed to play. I just had a great degree of difficulty getting him to the level I knew he could play at."
With MacTavish gone, Penner's remedial work in the gym is over. "On the bike I'd have to burn 1,000 calories before practice and 500 calories after practice," Penner recalls. "Did it make me a better player? It made me tired. But it also gave me a new passion for the Tour de France." His ice time has also shot up by 28% under Quinn, to nearly 20 minutes a game.
"You look at Penner now, and a change of coach is being credited for the way he's playing," says Vigneault, who last season was publicly and pointedly critical of the conditioning level of Vancouver center Kyle Wellwood, who was cruelly nicknamed Wellfed. "My guess is it's a change in work ethic. For guys like Penner and Wellwood, it's about attitude. They found out what they needed to do to be successful."
"You have to read between the lines in what a coach is saying," Penner says. "Sometimes there's swearing or demeaning stuff, but I've always had a pretty good filter. I'm like, What is it he's really trying to say to me? So, 'You're a f---ing idiot' becomes 'There's something I've done that he doesn't perceive to be smart.' ... You tune in the part about what you can do better and tune out [the rest]."
Not every NHLer is blessed with Penner's perspective, especially in an era when players tend to be more sensitive than their tooth-missing forefathers. Wayne Halliwell, a sports psychologist who works with Hockey Canada, says, "Players used to look in the mirror. Now they phone their agents."
The doghouse, as Murray says, "has undergone a lot of renovations. In my Washington days"—he coached the Capitals in the early 1990s—"you could easily send a guy to the minors. If you didn't agree with how a player was going about his job, often you could have that player traded. With long-term deals, a salary cap and no-movement clauses, you're often limited to knocking a guy down a few lines" or publicly criticizing him.
"Tomas Kaberle's a great example of [a reaction to public criticism]," Toronto's Wilson says of his 31-year-old defenseman, who was second among Eastern Conference blueliners with 35 points through Sunday. "Last year he was fat and out of shape. Fifteen percent body fat. Now he's at eight, and maybe the best offensive defenseman in the league. You can see him go, making plays at the end of games that he couldn't last year. [Burke, now the Leafs' G.M.] and I were blunt with him last season and went a little public with it. [Wilson also benched Kaberle in a December 2008 game.] That's presenting a message and him responding."
All of which proves that you can teach an older dog new tricks, something to which Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward can attest. In his formative NHL seasons with the Red Wings in the late 1990s, Ward didn't need a Château Bow Wow so much as a kennel the size of Versailles. The joke in the Detroit dressing room was that Ward should have his name legally changed from Aaron to F---ing because that is the way he was generally referred to by Bowman, who once called him up from the minors but sent him back down after the morning skate. Ward presumes he had a bad morning skate.
"One time [the Red Wings] had played poorly on special teams and we were practicing the penalty kill," Ward says. "The puck comes to me, I stop for a second and then shoot it out of the zone. Scotty blows the whistle and starts screaming that I should get rid of the puck before I get it. There I am, wondering if that's even physically possible. Now we're doing a drill where the [defensemen] have to get the puck out of the zone off the face-off, and he's standing at the boards at the blue line. For me to get it out, I'm going to have to wing it right at him. At this point I probably haven't been in the lineup for two weeks. Off the face-off the puck comes to me way too easy in the corner—you can see [centers] Steve Yzerman and Kris Draper grinning—so I fire it around the boards and wham! it hits Scotty in the head. He's bleeding. My career's over. He blows the whistle and screams, 'That's how you get the puck out of a zone.'
"You never knew. I was playing against Chicago, New Year's Eve. I'd been in the doghouse at that time, and I went down to block a shot on my second shift. My face is cut, lower lip to the nose. I'm off to the dressing room for repairs, and as I go by him, Scotty says, if you're not back in five minutes, you won't play another shift. There's an older doctor, not the fastest guy with stitches, and I'm trying to hurry him up. Glue, stitches, whatever. Let's go. I get 10 stitches, I'm back on the bench quick, maybe four minutes. And Scotty still didn't play me another shift. Played five [defensemen] the rest of the game."
Bowman now recalls Ward as "very intelligent, just not someone who showed a lot of hockey sense. There were a lot of giveaways early in his career. I think he was nervous. The puck was like a hand grenade for him." Hmmm, you wonder why.
Now near the end of his career (last month he was put on waivers and went through unclaimed), Ward has generally been a dependable player, winning two Stanley Cups with Detroit and another with Carolina in 2006. He also kept himself clear of Julien's doghouse during two seasons in Boston. But a coach's mongrel treatment does not always yield a lasting benefit—Frolov, for example, has slipped back into Kibbles-'n-Bits territory, after his postbenching surge—and it can even be risky. "The response to the doghouse is based on the player," Penner says. "You can keep a player in there too long. And like baking a cake, if you keep it in the oven too long, you burn it. There's nothing you can do with it."
"If you have a player who's not playing well and you beat him, the player becomes insecure," says Thrashers coach and former NHL left wing John Anderson, who recalls being in Toronto coach Joe Crozier's bad books. "We always talk about confidence. When you strip that away, you're left with nothing."
If you are hardy like retired forward Scott Mellanby and can survive your early years under a taskmaster such as former Philadelphia coach Mike Keenan—"Keenan once personally skated Mellanby by himself after [the regular Saturday pregame skate] at the Montreal Forum, and you know how many people saw that," former Flyers teammate Dave Poulin says of the public humiliation—you might go on to a solid 21-year NHL career. If you are not, well, then maybe no one can remember your name. "Those are the guys who just fade away," says Poulin, now the Maple Leafs' vice president of hockey operations. "In professional athletics, you really do need a thick skin." Without one, a dog may never have his day.