To understand the depth and breadth of the relationship between new Kings coach John Stevens and first-year general manager Rob Blake you have to go all the way back to Turkey Point, Canada, the town in southwestern Ontario where Stevens grew up.
But if you go back, go during the summer.
“In the winter time it would just be probably, jeez, I don’t know if there’d be 100 people,” Stevens said. “It’s just a little beach community and in the winter time you can imagine what that’s like. You’re actually not allowed to live there year-round because they don’t have the infrastructure. They have summer water and winter water, and they shut the water off.”
Turkey Point, about 80 miles from Niagara Falls, wasn’t big enough to have a gym, but there was one about 10 miles away in Simcoe, just north of the Blake family farm. Stevens had left home to play junior hockey, but his brother Larry ran the gym. Soon after Blake was drafted by the Junior A Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, Larry called Blake and invited him to train at the gym, a meaningful gesture to a kid who was 14 or 15 and knew little about the path to the NHL.
“I started working out in the gym,” Blake said. “I’d never been involved with junior players. My very first taste of all that, the training, what the whole lifestyle and everything was, it was through John’s family.”
The connection between Stevens, 51, and Blake, who’s 3 ½ years younger, endured while Blake became a Hall of Fame defenseman and Stevens a journeyman who turned to coaching after an eye injury ended his career. Their paths crossed again after Stevens, fired by the Philadelphia Flyers less than two seasons after he led them to the Eastern Conference final, became a Kings assistant coach in 2010 and Blake became the club’s assistant general manager in 2013. It was natural for Blake, in his first major decision as general manager, to elevate Stevens from associate head coach to coach to succeed Darryl Sutter.
“There’s an enormous amount of trust. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him as a person and as a player,” Stevens said of Blake. “Both of our families have always had a lot of respect for each other, growing up in the same area. I think because of that trust it really makes a good relationship. We’re both thinking the game the same way. We’re open to sharing ideas and talking about players, but I think he has a real trust in my character and work ethic, and I do with him as well.”
Stevens was the only person interviewed by Kings President Luc Robitaille and Blake. While Robitaille ran hockey operations and Blake was Dean Lombardi’s assistant, they saw Stevens direct the team’s outstanding defensive efforts and reshape Drew Doughty from a teenager who got by on pure talent to a complete player and Norris Trophy winner. Blake and Robitaille wanted to maintain high defensive standards but open up offensively. Stevens presented detailed plans that included playing at a faster tempo and more aggressively, not merely possessing the puck but possessing it in areas that give them a better chance to put it in the net. “We’re saying, ‘OK, we know we have it. That’s a good thing. But now let’s get better at producing quality,’” Stevens said.
Because of his association with Sutter, it’s easy to assume Stevens will be a Sutter clone. In some ways, that wouldn’t be bad. “I hope Johnny takes a lot of what he learned from Darryl,” Blake said, “because what Darryl did here was win two Stanley Cups and no one else had ever done that before. He pushed these players beyond their comfort zone and that’s very, very hard to do.”
The abrasive Sutter wore out his welcome. Enter soft-spoken Stevens, who respects Sutter but intends to establish his own identity. He plans to lean heavily on his assistants — Dave Lowry, who will oversee the defense, and Don Nachbaur, a former minor league teammate of Stevens’ who will oversee the forwards — but expects collaboration from them and from returning goaltending coach Bill Ranford.
“Rather than say how we’re going to be different, I can tell you what I will be,” Stevens said of comparisons to Sutter. “I think I’m a coach that is a good communicator. I will spend a lot of time with the leadership group. I will spend a lot of time with the players, making sure they understand what their role is, what to expect, what we’re teaching and why, on all fronts.”
His emphasis on communication comes from his tenure with the Flyers and from observing his sons, who are NHL prospects. The oldest, John, signed with the New York Islanders and the youngest, Nolan, was drafted by the St. Louis Blues and will be a senior at Northeastern.
“Just seeing what it does to them when they get feedback and when they don’t, that’s been a real reminder to me of how important it is,” Stevens said. “Today, we all expect immediate feedback and we want to know what’s going on and I’ve learned from that. I’ve had young players that maybe you don’t talk to them every single day but they need to know what they did well and what they didn’t. Then they have less anxiety, move on and get better right away, as opposed to wondering where they stood.”
Stevens takes over a team that has missed the playoffs two of the past three seasons and made no significant upgrades via trades or free agency. But he thinks the ingredients for success are in place.
“We want to get through the neutral zone faster. We want to get five people on the rush. That’s something we’ve encouraged before but we’re really going to focus on being better at it,” he said. “We’re sure planning on making the playoffs. We’re coming into next season with a group that’s had a lot of success before. We didn’t have a successful one last year, but there’s no question in our mind that it’s our plan to make the playoffs.”
That would give the folks in Turkey Point plenty to talk about.