A team’s culture isn’t something a coach or general manager can simply pronounce. It’s something that has to be encouraged.
Over the course of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure as Vancouver Canucks head coach it became clear that a new culture emerged.
It’s really a pretty simple thing. Have human relationships with your players and use emotional intelligence in those dealings.
“I think I’m pretty positive and everything’s about winning,” Boudreau said this week. “And I think it didn’t take long for everybody to understand that. It didn’t matter what we did. It was about winning. And I think that’s called a great culture to have. And so it starts with practice. It starts with the will to win in every game I think.”
In fostering a team’s culture a coach must know their athletes and set a strong, positive example. Players must be encouraged to speak freely and given the freedom to take risks on and off the field.
“Let them make mistakes. Let them take ownership,” Francois Ratier, a Quebec-based coaching consultant said. “The day the coach understands they work for the players and not the opposite it becomes better.”
Since Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev departed after the 2019-20 season there has been much talk about the important leadership roles they filled in the Canucks’ dressing room and how those holes remained a vacuum after their departures.
It’s clear from the comments of Boudreau and his players over the past few weeks that that vacuum has disappeared, that this current crop of Canucks has finally found their collective sense of self. And every player, whether they’re naturally talkative or not, feels empowered to speak up.
When Boudreau arrived in early December, the Canucks had won just eight of their first 25 games. Nothing they did seemed to work.
But winning builds confidence. And the Canucks won right away. That their success due mostly to the play of goaltender Thatcher Demko didn’t matter for the renewal of the team’s spirit.
They were winning and that’s all that matters.
“As we started winning, you could hear more in the room. It was more of a real positive room rather than a negative room. And there was no ‘woe is me’ anymore,” Boudreau recalled.
Tyler Myers agreed with Boudreau’s assessment.
“He’s awesome,” Myers said. “You find out pretty quick that Bruce is a pretty positive person. Even if we went through a couple of lulls, still very positive.
“He’s in the dressing room and kept guys upbeat. And I think the way we played as a group shows what we think of him. I thought the group played really hard for him. It’s a testament to what he did when he came in.”
The team had a handful of leaders, like Bo Horvat and JT Miller, who were known for speaking up in one way or another. But a truly vibrant team culture means everyone feels comfortable speaking up, to be able to lead no matter their role in team.
And so quiet players started to speak up more. It wasn’t just the quiet leaders like Demko and Elias Pettersson, it was role players like Alex Chiasson.
“Even normal quiet guys at the end, like Chiasson. I mean, everybody respects his voice. He’s won a cup and when he started playing and doing well, he started talking,” Boudreau said.
“And then Millsy and Horvat, and everybody was taking part in this thing. The Luke Schenns and the Tyler Myerses and everything. It was all a group of guys pointing in one direction.
“That’s the mindset that I want to see when players come to this team, that they expect to win, because when you expect to win, if you see somebody not working as hard as you or doing things that you’re capable of, that you’re willing to do and they won’t, you let them know,” Boudreau added.
“Then the leadership in the room becomes bigger and stronger. And it becomes the way you play and the way you live.”
Gone are the days where young players are expected to simply defer to the team’s veterans, Myers said.
“You want to see young guys speak up,” he said. “Just because a guy is young doesn’t mean he needs to stay quiet in the corner.”
Conor Garland pointed to a speech the normally-quiet Quinn Hughes made late in the season as an example of the culture shift. The high-octane defenseman told his teammates that just because they weren’t in the playoff chase anymore didn’t mean they couldn’t come out hard every night.
“Try to change the culture. You know, this team hasn’t been in the playoffs in a while and you know, we want to be a group that gets this team into the playoffs and competes for the Stanley Cup year in year out so it’s got to start somewhere,” was the message that Hughes had for his teammates, Garland said.
Myers noted that Hughes’s speech was somewhat mandatory because he’d just been given the team’s player of the game belt, but what Hughes had to say was impactful nonetheless.
“The words that he said, you could tell he’s growing up as a player and a person in the room, becoming one of the leaders,” Myers said.
“I thought the group this year came together in the room as well as I’ve seen during my time here.
“It’s not completely there, but it’s certainly trending in the right direction.”