With the start of training camp in Traverse City less than one month away, new Griffins coach Mike Stothers took time to talk to griffinshockey.com about his background, his philosophy, and why you have to beware those slap shots from the point.
What are your first impressions of Grand Rapids as a city?
I think it’s been even better than anticipated. I had heard a lot of good things about it. I went down there with the notion that it was going to be a real good fit, but I didn’t realize how nice of a city it is, how nice the rink is. The whole downtown core is beautiful, and you can understand why they get the support that they do. It’s been terrific.
Away and aside from the world of hockey, how would you describe yourself?
A family man, first and foremost. I love spending time with my kids and my wife and my dog. Fun-loving, good sense of humor, I love to laugh and have a good time. Kind of low-key.
What are the things that, in your opinion, made you an attractive hire for the Red Wings? What do they see in you?
I think I have a real passion for the game. I think that’s pretty easy to see in the way I approach the game. I think the fact that I had been in the pro game in various aspects was probably something that appealed to them, and maybe the fact that I spent the majority of my time in the American Hockey League as a player and as a coach. I got a pretty good feel for what it’s like to be a player and what it’s like to try to reach your ultimate goal of playing in the NHL.
Specifically, what kind of insight does your experience as a player and an assistant coach give you into being a head coach in this league?
I know that there’s a lot of frustration that goes along with trying to make that jump to the NHL. Sometimes you get a little taste of it, which is great, but you really want to be there full-time. (The AHL is) a tough league to play in, it really is. It’s very demanding, both physically and mentally. You’re basically playing the same amount of games as they do in the NHL, and the mode of travel is quite different. A lot of 3-in-3s and 4-in-5s. It wears on you.
For a lot of the guys, it’s the first time they’ve actually experienced being a pro hockey player. For the most part, they’re coming from a situation in which everything was pretty much taken care of for them, and now they’re on their own for the first time. Their diet, their sleeping patterns, they’re kind of policing themselves away from the rink, and that’s an adjustment for them. It’s a tough league to play in, and yet it can be very rewarding for them.
What made this job appealing to you?
The Detroit organization is so highly respected in NHL circles, and Grand Rapids is one of the best places to play in the American League. So you’ve got an ideal situation with your parent club being the Detroit Red Wings and your minor league affiliate being the Grand Rapids Griffins. Plus, I was enjoying what I was doing coaching at the junior level, but I did want to get back into the American Hockey League, I did want to get a taste of being a head coach at the American League level.
My family situation was right at this time. There were some other opportunities that were presented to me that were very, very appealing at the time, and with some great organizations and quality people involved as well. But when it was offered to me, it wasn’t quite the time for myself and my family situation. Now everything is kind of in place, and that allows me to go and pursue this with no strings, no regrets, just jump into it with both feet and make it work.
You were offered the job immediately after your interview. Did that surprise you at all?
Yeah. I went down there with the intention of giving it my best shot and being offered the job, but I realized there were some other very worthy individuals they were speaking to. I thought it would probably take a couple days before I’d hear back from them, either in a positive or maybe in a disappointing way. I was not expecting it at that time, and it was kind of overwhelming. But there was no hesitation on my part. When it was offered to me, they made it very clear that I could take some time and think about it, and I told Ken (Holland) and Jim (Nill) this, there was no thinking necessary. It was a no-brainer for me. I wanted the chance, I wanted the opportunity, and I was thrilled to be given that chance.
Describe what you were like as a player.
Thank God there’s not a whole lot of video footage, because they were just getting into it back then. I was a good team guy. I wasn’t a flashy hockey player. I was a stay at home, steady defenseman. I was more than willing to do anything for my teammates, to help our team win. I was quite satisfied with being a member of the team and not having to be the go-to guy or one of the guys in the limelight. My job was to protect my teammates and support them and help them in any way I could, and I felt for the most part it was pretty satisfying and rewarding for me to just contribute that way as a hockey player.
I mean, we all have grand illusions of being the 50-goal scorer and the guy who leads the league in scoring, but I knew that was not my game, and to try and play that way wasn’t going to help me or the team. So, just a character, stay-at-home, steady defenseman.
In spite of that, obviously you were a first-round pick, and especially in the early part of your playing career, how disappointing was it to not really get a shot to show off your skills in the NHL, and how did that experience help you grow as a player?
It was a big thrill for me to be drafted in the first round to the Flyers. I only played one year of junior. I was an 18-year-old kid that gets drafted, and at the time I was probably the same height I am right now, 6-4, but I think I weighed about 183 pounds. I went to training camp. They had just lost to the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1980, so they had a pretty good team. I knew I had my work cut out for me to even make the roster. I really don’t have any regrets about not playing more. I always felt that if you do everything you can as a player and an individual to prepare yourself to play, then you’ve done everything you can control. And some of the things you can’t control are they players they acquire and choose to stay with.
It became apparent to me even at a younger age that my skating wasn’t strong enough, foot-speed wise, to play on a regular basis in the NHL. No matter how much I tried to improve upon that, it still wasn’t good enough to be a regular in the NHL. Whatever experience I had there, it was terrific. I was well treated by the Flyers. It was a terrific organization that looked after me and my family very well. I consider myself a lucky man to have been a part of their organization both as a player and a coach. It was a great opportunity, so I never look back and say “what coulda, shoulda, woulda happened to me.” I’m a pretty fortunate guy, I think.
When did you get the coaching bug? Was it something you always thought about as a player, or did it come about more at the end of your career?
It was initially offered to me one of my later years playing in Hershey, as a player/assistant coach. At the time, Mike Eaves was coaching in Hershey, a real great guy and a great coach. I was very eager to experience that. As it turned out, because of injuries and callups, I ended up playing more than I was actually coaching, so it didn’t really evolve as I probably should have into the coaching role right away. I think I still had that burning desire to play, and until you actually extinguish that and allow yourself to pursue something else, it’s pretty hard to pour your heart and soul into it. It was only after I stepped away from the game completely as a player that I appreciated the coaching end of it and realized that playing’s the best thing there is – there’s no question about that - but coaching has its own rewards: being a part of the team, trying to help others realize their goals is pretty satisfying as well. It didn’t take long, but I did have to kind of cleanse myself from the playing mode.
How do you think the players whom you’ve coached in the past would describe you?
Firm, but fair. I can be demanding. I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform, and I do the same with the players. But I think they recognize that all I ask is an honest effort. Sometimes you’ve got it and sometimes you don’t, but certainly when the effort’s there, they’ll never have a problem with me. I try to show them that there’s a human side to me with my humor, and I try to talk to them as individuals. I try not to have a situation where any one individual on the team doesn’t know where he stands. There really isn’t any grey area as to what your role is and what your job description is to help the team win. I like to think of myself as a teacher. I enjoy that part of the game, whether it’s walking through things on the ice or going over things through video or individually. I don’t know if you can say “he’s a real player’s coach” or whatever, but I think there’s a fine line between being hard but fair and being a player’s coach.
You still stand as Hershey’s all-time leader in penalty minutes. Has that translated into your coaching style at all, and what can Griffins fans expect from a Mike Stothers-coached team?
I knew that was coming! I like a fast-paced, hard, aggressive team. I love the fact that there’s hitting and puck pursuit, and I like everybody to be aggressive in that area. I know the rules have changed and we’ve had to adapt with it, but our team should have great work ethic. If we start with that and implement and stick to our systems, what we need to do to succeed, I think we’ll all have success.
The penalty minute thing, that goes back to my job on the team was to help and support my teammates. I didn’t mind doing that, but I think one of the things that people maybe wouldn’t understand unless they know me is that off the ice, I’m pretty mild-mannered and soft-spoken for the most part. That was my way of contributing to the team. That’s not to say I still don’t enjoy a good scrap, I think we all do, and I hope they never take that out of the game. There’s a time and a place for everything, and when it’s warranted or needed things have to be taken care of as well.
It must have been incredible for a Toronto kid to have a chance to play at Maple Leaf Gardens. Describe what that was like and what you remember about that day.
I had just gotten traded from Philly to Toronto, and I was supposed to actually meet the team in Edmonton. But we had some flight problems in Hershey and I had to meet the team in Toronto. So the first time I met the guys was in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens, which for me was a huge thrill. I went to the Gardens all the time to watch the Marlies junior A team and certainly to watch the Leafs. And to put on a Leafs jersey and be standing there for the national anthem, and playing a huge rival in Detroit, back when they had the Proberts and the Kocurs and guys like that, you knew it was going to be a long night to begin with. It was special for me because I knew the time and effort my dad had put into it, and he’s a big hockey fan. He was able to be at the game that night. It’s just something I’ll never forget.
You are one of the few who’ve won a Calder Cup as both a player and a coach. Winning it so early in your career as a player, what do you remember from that experience and how did it compare to winning it years later as an assistant coach?
I remember as a player it was pretty special. It was my second year pro. My first year pro we went to the finals against Rochester. We lost four straight. We had a great year and it was a tremendous thing, but to lose four straight was very painful, and to lose to Rochester four straight was unbearable. We played them the next year, and their papers and media were really talking about how it was going to be a sweep again, Rochester was going to win again. Just the bitter taste from the year before, and the fact that they weren’t respecting us as opponents, it really was a rallying point for us. They won the first game, and of course everything started about “here we go again, four straight.” Well then we rattled off the next four, and we won it right in Rochester. It was a great, great feeling, number one, just to win, but to be able to carry around the Calder Cup in Rochester’s arena, it was great. It was a super, super thing.
I remember each and every guy that was on the team, from the guys that played regularly to the guys that didn’t. Like a Jeff Bandura, he sat in his equipment each and every game in the dressing room. We’d come in between periods and he’d be sitting there rallying the troops and everything else, and that was his way of contributing. He used to say “you gotta believe, you gotta believe,” and that was his thing. We all bought into it and it was great.
As a coach, to be able to experience it and watch the players and their reaction and how special a feeling it was for them, it was awesome. It’s so satisfying, and to do it in Philly, where it was a sold-out building in the Spectrum for the final game, and it was so loud you couldn’t ever hear yourself think. To even make a line change, there was no way you could convey it unless you were actually tapping guys on the back to get them to hop over the boards. It was terrific. There’s no better feeling than winning a championship in a team sport. It’s just the greatest thing going.
You’ve had a remarkable run of at least making the playoffs in your coaching career, each of the last 13 seasons. What’s been the secret?
I never realized it until I went to Grand Rapids, and you guys started to bring it up. It’s always just been a given for me. I don’t know even as a player, I just can’t fathom what it would be like (to miss the playoffs). Playoffs are what it’s all about. There has to be some good luck and good fortune to go along with that, but it’s something I hope never changes, that’s for darn sure.
How did your last five years as a head coach in the OHL prepare you for your new position? Did it help you develop something you needed to work on? How did it get you to where you are today?
It was a great experience for me coaching at that level because there is so much teaching involved. It’s very similar to what you experience in the American Hockey League, you’re just dealing with older individuals and this is now their profession. Whereas we had kids come in, they’re 16, 17 years of age, you maybe have them for 3 or 4 years and they move on to hopefully play pro, but in a lot of cases they go on and get a job or continue their education.
For me, it was a good place to start as a head coach and realize the importance of teaching. There was an adjustment period for me coming back from the NHL into junior, in the fact that I kind of at the start assumed that everybody knew their position or what their roles were or what their job was on the ice. I had to realize these were just kids, and we had to start right from the basics and work our way through. It taught me to be more patient. There were some things that worked well, and some things that you try and didn’t work out quite as well, and you realize there’s gotta be a different approach for this. It was a good learning process for myself.
I learned from the players and they learned from me, and it’s valuable experience the fact that the Ontario Hockey League has great coaches you’re coaching against every night. It’s a huge challenge. For the most part, most guys have NHL or pro hockey backgrounds. That in itself made it very educational for me. It was a positive thing, it was a great experience. I enjoyed it so much I wasn’t actively pursuing anything. All I knew is that at some point I wanted to get back into the American League, as a head coach, and when the right organization was involved, I knew it would be a chance I wanted to explore. Certainly, I really want to thank the Ontario Hockey League and [commissioner] Dave Branch. What a great league it is for junior hockey. To be a part of it for five years was pretty special.
You played for Tom McVie and John Paddock, coached with Bill Barber, worked with Roger Neilson and John Stevens. Talk about the impact each of those men had on you becoming the person and coach you are today.
I’ve been able to have myself surrounded by great people. Tommy McVie was exactly what I needed when I came out of junior and was a first-year pro. He was a very demanding individual, but he was so patient with guys that worked and wanted to get better. He’s a little bit of an old-school type of coach. You don’t see those guys much anymore, but he was certainly what I needed. He provided the direction for us as players and was a great role model for us. Everybody I had as coaches or that I worked with impacted me in certain ways. I learned a lot both in a good way, and some things I look back on and think “I wouldn’t have handled that situation that particular way,” but I learned from their handling of it.
John Paddock is a very quiet, very studious individual. Bill Barber is a very passionate man. Not only is he a great coach, but he’s one of my best friends in hockey and has been so helpful to me in my career. He’s winner of coach of the year in the NHL, and he’s done just about everything there is in the game of hockey. He’s done it all, and everywhere he goes he seems to win. Roger was such an innovator in the game, and just a nice, nice man. I never even heard him raise his voice ever to a player. His work ethic of 24/7 at the rink and the preparation that went into his team and his players, it was amazing.
I feel bad because I could go on and on about each and every one of them but I’d be leaving somebody out. John Stevens, we played together as players then he got an eye injury and had to retire. He was actually the best captain I’ve ever had as far as hockey goes, and it was a huge loss when he couldn’t play for us anymore. Then he joined Billy and I in the coaching and that was great. It’s great to see him move on from playing to coaching and winning the Calder Cup in the American League, and now he’s coaching in the NHL. He’s another guy that’s one of my greatest friends in hockey.
Craig Ramsey, he keeps moving around but I don’t think there’s a finer individual our there. He’s just a great hockey man and very thorough, and taught me a lot about play away from the puck and stuff like that. He’s great and, again, another winner. I guess if you surround yourself with enough people that win, you’re going to win.
Did you suffer any significant injuries during your playing career?
In my first NHL game, I finally got called up to the Flyers. I made it through the first period playing a regular shift. In the second period I was standing in front of the net and a point shot came in and hit me right in the face. I broke my nose, concussion, 13 stitches on my forehead, carried off the ice on a stretcher. That was my debut. That was nice. That was right in the Philadelphia Spectrum, too. That’s a tough crowd. They want you to get up! You’re not even allowed to lie there. That was a tough way to break into the league.
(The injury time missed) was about two weeks. The good thing about it was, it was right before Christmas and I ended up going back to Hershey. But the Flyers always go on a western road swing after Christmas, and Bob Clarke was good enough that he took me along. He could have left me in Hershey to recuperate and he brought me along, I guess he was feeling bad or as a reward for taking one for the team. I went on the western swing with them and just got to hang out with the guys and experience what NHL hockey life is like.
The whole time I was rehabbing and getting healthy again. You know what, I never forgot that, the fact he brought me along with the team and let me continue to be a part of the team when he didn’t have to. They could have just sent me back, and you know what, I’ll never forget that.