Bill LeRoy is the dean of video coaches in the American Hockey League.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Most hockey coaches are easily identified as they stand behind the bench in their suits and ties while watching the play on the ice.
Bill LeRoy, however, is nowhere to be seen. Every Griffins game he is huddled in the bowels of the coaches’ office, his nose inches from the screen of his laptop, his fingers poised to mark specific video clips of the action on view.
Every AHL team has a video coach but none has the experience of LeRoy, “the only legally blind video guy in the league,” according to the Griffins’ Ben Simon, the 18th head coach for whom the Kalamazoo native has worked during a career now in its fourth decade.
LeRoy has worked with no fewer than nine coaches who have gone on to the NHL: Kevin Constantine, Ken Hitchcock, Claude Noel and Jim Playfair in Kalamazoo; Guy Charron, Bruce Cassidy, Curt Fraser, Jeff Blashill and Todd Nelson in Grand Rapids.
Despite various health issues – he’s undergone kidney and pancreas transplants, quadruple bypass surgery, four eye procedures, and multiple foot surgeries due to diabetes – he rarely misses a game. And while some say he is, well, “a little quirky,” few would ever dispute that he is one of the best at his job.
“Billy’s biggest asset is his heart,” Simon said. “He’s a selfless person who cares about this team and how it does. He takes great pride in his job and he’s good at what he does. Through all his health issues, he never misses a game, and the guys see that and they really like him.”
Blashill believes LeRoy has the kind of knowledge that few in his position possess. The challenge is getting the remarkably reticent LeRoy to open up.
“Bill has unreal experience,” said Blashill, who spent three years in Grand Rapids before becoming the Red Wings’ coach in 2015. “I would always ask him, ‘What would Hitch do?’ It became a little bit of joke between us, but not really. I would pick his brain because he has tons of experience. Of course, if you want to know, you have to ask, because he won’t speak unless you ask. But he’s a great person.”
It’s LeRoy’s job to capture clips from the coaches’ video feed, a bird’s eye view of the game. He also tracks which players are on the ice as well as everything from faceoffs, shots and turnovers to scoring chances, power plays and penalty kills. He logs 400-450 video clips per game, each lasting anywhere from five seconds to a minute or longer.
“The coaches will make notes during the game and when they come into the locker room between periods, they’ll ask me to grab 5-7 clips from the period,” he said. “I have less than a minute to bring up whatever they want, with all the clips in order from the start of the period to the end.”
LeRoy uses STEVA Hockey, a user-friendly video analysis software tool that allows him to create and save short video clips so that coaches can review the action quickly and easily to provide customized visual feedback to the players.
“I love what I do,” said LeRoy, whose brother Tim is the equipment manager for the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Over the years, this has become like my second family.”
LeRoy is the father of 21-year-old twins. Tyler is attending Lake Superior State University, where he is studying law enforcement. Becca is studying at Michigan State University with hopes of becoming a veterinarian.
An avid hockey fan while he was growing up, LeRoy was a Kalamazoo Wings season ticket holder when he ran into radio play-by-man Terry Ficorelli at a Kalamazoo gas station during the summer of 1980.
LeRoy volunteered his services to do whatever Ficorelli might need, and he began compiling statistics for the veteran broadcaster during the 1981-82 season when former Red Wings center Jean-Paul LeBlanc was the coach in Kalamazoo.
“I was getting tired of driving myself and wanted to ride on the team bus, so I talked to the coach to see if there was anything else I could do,” LeRoy said. “I started tracking faceoffs and scoring chances for the team and got to go on the road, which was great.”
His role eventually expanded with the arrival of Hitchcock as Kalamazoo’s head coach for the 1993-94 season. “Hitch had been in the NHL with Philadelphia the previous three seasons as a Flyers assistant and they had used a program that kept the players’ time on ice, which nobody was tracking back then, so we became the first to do ice times at the minor league level.”
LeRoy started working with video under Hitchcock. “Back then it was all VCR tapes,” he recalled. “I had a dual recorder back at home and bought satellite packages to watch IHL games,” he said. “I would give him two tapes, one for goals for and one for goals against, along with the power play and penalty kill.”
Hitchcock was a stickler for detail. “I would take four or five sheets of stats down to the coaches between periods,” LeRoy said. “There was one game where we were getting beat badly after the first period, so he was upset and briefly glanced through the sheets in no time.
“When I went back down with the second-period stats, he ruffled through the pages again, but this time he noticed that a couple of guys were doing better. When I checked the first period sheets, I saw that he was right. He had that kind of memory.
“He was one of those coaches who knew how to get the most out of every player. He would call players out, but it wasn’t to embarrass them. It was to help make them better players. Under Hitch, we had back-to-back 100-point seasons, but we just couldn’t reach the Turner Cup Finals. He was one of the best coaches I ever worked for.”
LeRoy had gotten his first taste of what is now called analytics earlier in his career when Kevin Constantine was an assistant under John Marks during the late 1980s in Kalamazoo. “He went so far as to break down what every referee called so the team would know if, for example, somebody was more prone to call stick infractions,” he said. “Back then you wouldn’t think the use of most stats would amount to much, but it was another edge that could help the team.”
Eventually, LeRoy was spending so much time at the rink that he became the ice events coordinator for Wings Stadium. “I was put in charge of scheduling all of the hockey-related events at the arena and it became my full-time job. Between those responsibilities and working with the hockey team, I ended up being there a lot.”
In 1999-2000 LeRoy learned that the team in Kalamazoo (which had morphed into the Michigan K-Wings) would become defunct. “Flying back from Orlando at the end of the season, I contacted the Griffins, who had a first-round bye in the playoffs,” he said. “I sent samples of what I had done in Kalamazoo to Guy Charron, who was the coach in Grand Rapids at the time, and that’s when I started with the Griffins.”
Over the years, coaches have become increasingly dependent on video as a teaching tool. Blashill, for example, was a big proponent of the technology at LeRoy’s fingertips and made extensive use of video in his coaching.
“Blash wanted to be able to show mistakes to players,” he said. “In the meetings, he never called them ‘mistakes’ and he would never call anyone out unless it was in private. He was always positive, trying to show players what he wanted. That’s how most coaches do it now. Rarely do you hear a coach rant anymore.”
Where Blashill might show the same clip over and over to get his message into the minds of the players, other coaches have relied less on video. “Curt Fraser and Todd Nelson were similar,” LeRoy said. “They would look at clips, but they were both old-school in that they would write things on the board. I see a lot of Blash in Ben. They both have the same drive and desire to do whatever it takes. In fact, they both remind me of Hitch because they know what they want.”
LeRoy is amazed how analytics have become an increasingly important tool in recent years, as coaches rely on various statistical trends to formulate their systems and game strategies. “Every team uses it differently to their advantage,” he said.
There’s a simple explanation for the popularity of video clips. “Video doesn’t lie,” LeRoy said. “Players can watch the video and see their mistakes without the coach needing to yell about it. Most coaches know how to use video. Of course, there are some games where you don’t need to show any clips at all.”
Video is utilized not only for breaking down the Griffins’ power play and penalty kill units but also for assisting coaches in their “pre-scout” of teams. LeRoy will compile clips from past games to help the coaches underscore tendencies of the opposition.
“I still love what I do,” said LeRoy, who will mark his 3,000th game next season. “I’ve gone to Columbus a couple of times when Detroit has been there and I got the biggest kick out of sitting on the home bench and watching the pregame skate. So many Red Wings came over and shook my hand and asked how I was doing because so many of them had played in Grand Rapids.”
LeRoy is single, so he’s pretty much married to the game. “I owe a lot to Dogg (equipment manager Brad Thompson) and Bernie (athletic trainer John Bernal) who are truly good friends. Working with them and spending time with all the players is what makes everything so fun.”
His biggest thrill has been being a part of two championship teams. “In all my years in Kalamazoo, it never happened,” he said. “To win the Cup not just once but twice was cool. You always want to win another one and when you look at our team this year, I’d like to think that we’re looking pretty good.”