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The Cornered Coach - The Kessel Conundrum


Phil Kessel is having a Stanley Cup playoff for the ages—10 goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins and just two wins away from wearing a championship ring. Those are pretty impressive numbers for a guy who was run out of Toronto carrying a bad reputation as a lazy hockey player with a lousy attitude.  New Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock obviously wanted no part of "Phil the Thrill,” who allegedly quit on the previous coaching staff. In fact, one of the first moves Babcock made upon arriving in T.O. was informing management that Kessel wasn't part of the Blue and White solution, leading to the Buds making a swap with Pittsburgh.

To Kessel's credit, after a so-so regular season, he's put together a tremendous postseason run for the Pens, showing that when he's motivated, Phil definitely has a boatload of skill.

So how do you deal with a player who has a troublesome attitude, and how do you "pump 'em up" to make sure they reach their full potential?

In the NHL, like the Leafs did with Kessel, you can simply ship them out of town. On the other hand, you can also surround them with other skilled players who augment their talents. Kessel, for instance, has found a home in the Steel City playing on a line with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin; a trio that has developed an awesome chemistry and turned into the best line in the NHL playoffs. Kessel has also risen to a new level by observing the work ethic and leadership abilities of Sidney Crosby. It's hard to be lazy ,after all, when your best player is also your hardest worker, with Crosby constantly showing up for "optional" practices during the playoffs to continue improving his game. Also, Kessel isn't crazy about dealing with the media—a character trait that didn't help him in Toronto, where he was forced to answer dozens of questions from a hockey-hungry media mob. In Pittsburgh though, Kessel can usually slip out the back door while other stars such as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang do most of the talking.

In youth sports, however, things are a little different. 

You can't trade little Bobby to another team, for example, just because his lousy attitude is driving you nuts. But, fortunately,  there are a few effective methods at your disposal when it comes to dealing with problem players.  

This season, I had a pair of kids that presented interesting challenges at the house league hockey level. One of them didn't want to take his turn playing defence, even bursting into tears on the bench and refusing to man the blue line.  Another player took great delight informing his coaches and teammates that he didn't even want to play hockey—that the only reason he was there was because his mom signed him up and forced him to attend.

Who knows?

Maybe that was Phil Kessel's problem in Toronto.

"Now Phil, I know you want to stay home to play video games and eat hot dogs, but you've got a game against the Montreal Canadiens tonight!"

Minor hockey, of course, isn't the NHL. But, as a coach, you still have to deal with problem players to make sure they aren't ruining the experience for everybody else. In the "I don't wanna play defence" situation, we benched the offending player for a shift and explained the importance of everyone sharing the different positions and contributing to the team. We also talked to his parents about the problem and were fortunate to have their full support. Lo and behold, the little guy actually volunteered to play defence at our next game and it wasn't an issue for the rest of the season.

The case of the "I don't even want to play hockey" lad was a tad more challenging. The kid actually had some talent but he'd literally sit on the floor of the bench when he wasn't playing and when it was time to take a shift, his work ethic was brutal. So, after weeks of frustration, the coaching staff decided to try a little reverse psychology.

"Okay pal, you don't want to play hockey? Fine, you can just sit there and when you DO decide you want to play, let us know and we'll think about it."

Suddenly, after missing a few shifts, the lad discovered that sitting on the floor of the bench was beginning to get boring. He tugged on our sleeves and told us he'd actually like to get back in the action. 

What do you know?

He played hard that day, he played well, and he turned out to be a key factor in our squad handing the first place team their first loss of the season.


Mike Toth definitely isn't Mike Sullivan, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But I'm sure that Sullivan feels pretty satisfied as he watches Phil Kessel help lead the Penguins to the Promised Land.

And I promise you'll get a good feeling when a few of your players with iffy attitudes suddenly turn the "Kessel Corner.”

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