Calgary Flames

Mike Babcock and Darryl Sutter could signal the end of the old school coaching style

With this afternoon’s announcement over the resignation of Mike Babcock from his post as Columbus Blue Jackets head coach following the recent NHLPA investigation, it’s clear that hockey is at least trying to change. Albeit slowly, but there has been at least some momentum.

Even with the Calgary Flames firing of Darryl Sutter following a disastrous season, one that included an internal investigation, most hockey players in the league now are simply not comfortable with how the player-coach relationship used to exist.

Old school hockey is virtually heading towards it’s death. Let us explain:

Youth Movement

Ignoring the coaching impact for a second, the NHL on average has gotten much younger these past few seasons. At the end of last season, only two teams had an average roster age over 30: the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. That being said, when we say over 30, we mean 30.0 and 30.1 respectively which means it’s almost borderline to say over 30.

The league is filled with far younger players than it ever has which means the playing style has evolved from a bulk-and-brawn approach to one that relies on speed and skill. Depending on what decade you were born in, this may be a good thing or a terrible thing.

Regardless of opinion, this new style is what is winning in the new NHL and all teams are trying to chase it. Long gone are the teams that fill out the bottom of their roster with older veterans, rather younger players that earn an NHL shot.

The coaching of these players is slowly starting to catch up as well, with those teams who have missed the trend playing catch up.

Sutter and Babcock

Two of the most recent NHL head coach firings came as a result of clear differences between players and coaches. 

Sutter had created an environment so toxic in Calgary that even going to the rink wasn’t enjoyable for most of the players. Those players that “tolerated him” were older veterans that were only in the lineup due to their close relationship. Younger players like Jakob Pelletier were left in the dark and publically humiliated at some points just based purely on Sutter’s style.

We of course only saw one side of the story, but there has been so much public vitriol towards Sutter over the last 12 months that clearly it wasn’t an isolated instance. Sure it can work sometimes, like in the 2021-22 season, but the tolerance level of players was much shorter than it was in the past. Never have we seen so many players somewhat band together to work towards getting a coach fired. 

In Babcock’s situation, it’s Deja vu. He already went through a previous debacle in Toronto where he mentally intimidated younger players and created another toxic dressing room. The fact that he was given another chance speaks volumes to how much further the NHL needs to come.

That being said, the players in Columbus never let it get to a breaking point. The team has one of the youngest rosters in the NHL, and it’s important to note that the NHLPA investigation only went through as a result of reports that younger players on the team felt uncomfortable despite what some veterans had to say. 

It was clear the youth movement in Columbus was not going to let this type of environment persist. 

Changing tactics 

The old school mantra of grinding players down just simply doesn’t work with the younger generation. Their heightened focus on their mental game almost trumps the focus on the physical side. 

Hard work and talent drives a lot of success, but so does a strong mindset. You have seen players recently enter the NHL Player Assistance program to death with their mental health struggles, so you can only imagine what that must feel like when the source of pain is coming directly from their head coach.

Players are much more willing to speak out against these types of issues now, which means trying to play games with them won’t be as successful. Add in the new social media age, and the instant reaction and public awareness of issues comes much faster. 

It’s a fine line to walk.

NHL teams like the Flames and Washington Capitals have hired younger first time NHL coaches in an effort to combat this new way of thinking and try something different. Time will tell if it works.

A step in the right direction 

Having Babcock resign from his post was the right move, but one that never needed to happen. The NHL was aware of his historical issues with the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings that maybe not all people deserve second chances. 

You could also look at Columbus hockey operations and say “glad they did the right thing” but they also put themselves into that position and should deserve no credit for righting a wrong of their own making.

The real positive step here is with the younger players that felt comfortable speaking out against the concerns. The NHL needs more of that type of leadership in locker rooms and here is to hoping that things that were ok in the old school way are now headed to the grave.

Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire

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