ST. PAUL — Many hockey coaches like to be on the road early in the season. While much can be learned at home, and players naturally get to know each other on the practice rink and in the locker room, that bonding is taken to a new level when teams travel.
It was well past the early part of the NHL season when John Hynes took over the Minnesota Wild following the late November firing of Dean Evason, but perhaps the timing was right — as players get to know Hynes and he gets to know them — to head off on a four-game road swing to Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton and Seattle, as the team did recently.
They returned to Minnesota with two wins, two losses, and perhaps a better mutual sense of what the new coach and his new team are all about. In addition to the points from wins over the Flames and the Kraken, the Wild traveled together, ate meals together, explored Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market together and got to know their new boss a bit.
“On the road you’re around each other more, in the same spots, whether it’s more meals together, pregame meal, breakfast, you’re on the bus together and obviously on the plane,” Hynes said after the team’s Wednesday practice at TRIA Rink. “The road definitely creates more opportunities where you’re together and just have more informal conversations, and guys see each other more.”
Players say that the road trip was a great place to learn Hynes’ ways, and to move past the shakeup of the firing of Evason and assistant coach Bob Woods.
“Going through a coaching change is tough on everyone. It’s a little bit of uncomfortable waters,” said defenseman Jon Merill. “So to stick together through all of that and not be able to go home, just have to stay with it and stay in it as a group was definitely helpful, I think.”
Asked about the biggest surprise he learned about his team or maybe one of his players while they were out west, Hynes joked that it was probably nothing he could share on the record, but reiterated how valuable opportunities to get to know members of the Wild as people and not just as hockey players was perhaps the most important part of the trip.
“Particularly for me as the coach, here (in Minnesota) you have practice and you see them at the rink but once we’re done with all this, they’re going to go home,” Hynes said. “If it’s on the road, we’re taking the bus back, everyone’s going back to the hotel and it’s just easier to be around each other more.”
Rookie defenseman Brock Faber said that Hynes’ practices have been the laboratory where the implementation of his way of doing things has happened most effectively, as opposed to the heat of a road game, where there are 15,000-plus opposing fans noisily hoping for you to fail every time your skates touch the ice.
“Practices are huge for us, trying to implement new systems. So far we’ve been playing a lot better since he came in, not perfect, obviously,” Faber said. “He’s been great and I feel like everyone has stepped up their game somewhat, but obviously we’ve got to keep building.”
With a 5-2-0 record since taking over the reins of a team that had lost its way, there are clearly signs that Hynes has the Wild pointed in the right direction. Having a team that seems to like one another off the ice, and that thrives on the road when it is just them without the distractions of home life is another positive sign that a comeback has begun.
“The road trip just reinforced the camaraderie of the group,” Hynes said. “You can tell they like being around each other. There’s not a lot of cliques. You go to meals and everyone is eating with everybody. Those are some of the observations you can see as a coach.”
Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at [email protected], or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.