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VOL. 42 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 26, 2018

Predators players praise Laviolette as master motivator

By John Glennon

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Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, center, knows how to get his team ready to play. “I just think he wakes up every day and is extremely passionate about winning that hockey game,” says forward Austin Watson.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

Asked to recall a particularly memorable Peter Laviolette motivational moment, Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis travels back in time to the very first game of the 2014-15 season.

This was Laviolette’s inaugural contest as the Preds’ head coach, after he’d been hired to turn around a team that had missed the playoffs for two straight seasons.

Laviolette gathered his players in the locker room following the team’s pre-game skate, dispensing strategical advice and – more importantly – delivering an inspirational message that still resonates with Ellis three-and-a-half years later.

“It wasn’t so much what he said, but more how he said it, how he presented it,” Ellis recalls. “It seemed like it was the Stanley Cup Finals at the time. He treated that first game of the year like it was the biggest game of the year.

“You could feel in his voice, and in the way he presented the game plan, that it was a must-win, even though it was just game one of the season. It was one of the more inspirational feelings I’ve ever had going out for a game.”

For the record, the Predators outshot Ottawa 37-20 in that game, rallying from a goal down in the third period to pull off a 3-2 victory. It was the first step toward a nine-win improvement that season, and a return to the playoffs that’s since become the norm for Laviolette’s team.

Laviolette’s oratorical abilities alone aren’t the biggest reason the Predators have been one of the most successful teams in the NHL during his tenure in Nashville. His words by themselves can’t make a player skate faster, hit harder or shoot more accurately.

But keep in mind that the NHL’s season is a beast, an 82-game marathon that marches through four time zones and two countries during the course of half a year – not including a postseason that can add two additional months.

So, a coach who can keep his players fresher and more motivated during the season’s most dismal days surely has an advantage over a counterpart who struggles to do the same.

That’s where Laviolette’s abilities to push the right buttons – publicly or privately – appear to give the Predators an edge.

“He’s the best motivator I’ve ever had,” acknowledges Preds defenseman Matt Irwin, who’s played for three NHL teams during six seasons in the league. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals or game 43 of the regular season.

“He’s got a way of getting guys all jacked up. I think it’s a very unique trait, not something you see a lot of, to the level that he does it.”

Adds Preds goalie Pekka Rinne: “He gets the most out of us. There are times in the middle of the season that you have a stretch of games and it seems like it’s just hockey all the time. But still, before the game you feel fired up, and you just can’t wait to get on the ice. That’s all Lavy.”

Rip your hearts out!

Laviolette’s extreme passion and competitiveness are rarely on display when he steps away from the rink. The 53-year-old coach is a man of relatively few words – and perhaps even fewer emotional displays – when in front of the public.

But there are at least a couple recorded examples of Laviolette’s intensity bubbling over.

One occurred in between periods of a game during the 2011 season, when Laviolette was coaching the Philadelphia Flyers.

Laviolette was incensed at what he perceived was a casual effort by his team, and HBO cameras in the locker room – given all-access privilege as part of a lead-up to an NHL Winter Classic game – gave viewers a close-up view of Laviolette tearing into his Flyers.

“I want to see people rip their heart out of their (expletive) chest this period!” Laviolette said as part of a memorable, R-rated soliloquy. “I’m not putting up with it. It’s too much (expletive). It’s too much!”

Then there was the 2012 season, when Laviolette blew a gasket when he felt the archrival Pittsburgh Penguins took a cheap shot at Flyers center Daniel Briere in the closing moments of a loss to Philadelphia.

Laviolette grabbed one of his player’s sticks, snapped it and brandished it at former Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma.

Laviolette even stepped from his bench onto the top of the boards, edging around the glass and toward the Penguins’ bench before cooler heads brought him back.

We haven’t seen anything of that magnitude in Nashville yet, but Laviolette doesn’t hold back when he disagrees with an official’s call, often leaning as far as he can over the Preds’ bench to deliver a screaming opinion.

“He’s always got that piece of gum in his mouth, and a couple of times it’s flown out of his mouth while he’s yelling at the refs,” Predators forward Scott Hartnell recounts.

“I’ve never been hit by the gum, but spit for sure. When he gets something in his mind, he’s very passionate about it. That’s exactly what you need in a leader, in a coach.”

Different night, different message

A free agent last summer, Hartnell could have chosen to sign with another team besides the Predators.

But the relationship Hartnell had developed with Laviolette during their years together in Philadelphia was one of the primary reasons he chose to play for the fiery coach again.

Sure, Laviolette can be tough at times, such as earlier this year, when he made Hartnell a healthy scratch one game following some sub-par outings.

But Predators players say they’re more drawn to Laviolette’s ability to get the best out of them than they are concerned about getting on his wrong side.

“I love Lavy – I respect him as an individual and as a coach,” Hartnell says. “I think he’s pretty fair. He’s one of the best speakers of the game I’ve been involved with over the years. It’s one thing to have a message. But if you can’t deliver it, it loses the point of the impact.”

Laviolette’s messages to the Predators vary from game to game – depending on the particular opponent, a challenge the team might be dealing with at that point in the schedule, or something else entirely.

This season, for instance, Laviolette used a military theme for inspiration on a night when the Predators’ organization was honoring military for their efforts.

On another night, the Predators were preparing for a struggling team, he warned against a “hornet’s nest” the Preds were likely to encounter from an opponent trying to regain its winning edge.

In the moments leading up to a recent contest against Vegas, Laviolette hammered home his theme that the Golden Knights had won both previous meetings with the Preds. Nashville earned the win that evening, shutting out the Golden Knights 1-0.

“I think that’s what makes him so different is the ability to come up with something different to motivate every time,” explains forward Harry Zolnierczyk, who’s played for Laviolette in both Philadelphia and Nashville.

“That’s not an easy thing to do. There’s plenty of guys, including myself, that have played for coaches that don’t speak a lot or are very repetitive with the things they say and do. That’s one of the special things that Lavy can do, kind of constantly keep his players motivated and excited, regardless of who you’re playing.”

“Just keeping everyone honest”

Asked how he keeps his message to the players fresh over the course of months and years, Laviolette offers a simple response.

“A lot of it is probably just honesty,” Laviolette said.

“There are different messages at different times. Our guys are pretty receptive. They know when they play well. They know when we need to play better. So, part of that is just keeping everyone honest on a day-to-day basis, win or lose.”

Laviolette’s approach to the game has certainly paid dividends over the years.

He guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006, and has reached the Cup Final twice since then – with the Flyers in 2010 and with the Predators last season.

The Predators look like Cup contenders this season as well, currently on pace to threaten the franchise record of 51 wins during the regular season.

The increasingly-condensed schedule will be brutal for the Preds and all NHL teams over the season’s last couple of months. But Nashville might just hold an advantage over its opponents in the form of Laviolette – and his ability to inspire.

“There are times you come out of team meetings in the morning, and you kind of wish the game was happening right away because you’re already all fired up,” Preds forward Austin Watson says.

“I just think (Laviolette) wakes up every day and is extremely passionate about winning that hockey game. When you have that burning desire, and when he’s able to relay it to us, we’re able to feed off that and get going. I think that’s one of the things he does best.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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