To learn more from the perspective of a been-there, done-that professional coach, I sat down recently with Mike Eaves, head coach of the AHL Cleveland Monsters (read more about Coach Mike at the end of this article). One of my questions to Mike was: “What would you look for if you were asked to observe another head coach in order to give them helpful feedback about how they coach their team?” Here is what Mike said:
“In professional hockey, the players are moving on the ice at over 20 miles per hour; the hockey puck is often traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour; and at any moment, a player can take a hit from another player that will end their career. At this level, the players who make it to the pros, are the elite of the elite, and pro coaches expect their players to devote unwavering attention to their fitness, their nutrition, their extracurricular activities, and to learning the game strategies as outlined by the coach. Any player who shows up for a practice or a game who is not laser-focused and 100% ready to play risks their career and will likely sit on the bench. But, a player’s focus, commitment, and preparation has to first be earned by the coach. Any coach who stands in front of their team has to earn the respect and even more importantly, the trust of the players before the players will lay it on the line for the coach during each game. So trust comes first. I will first assess the relationship between a coach and their team members to get a sense of whether or not the coach has built the trust needed for their players to give everything that they have toward the team’s objectives.”
I asked Mike, “So where does the trust come from?” Mikes response was:
“Empathy. As fast and as brutal as professional hockey can be, players don’t care how much the coach knows until they know how much the coach cares. Does the coach take time to build relationships? Does the coach take time to understand each player’s goals? Does the coach take time to listen, especially when a player offers a suggestion? When a coach demonstrates that they believe in each players’ full potential, they can expect that their players will lay it on the line for the team when it is needed most because the players trust the coach’s intentions.”
I have to say that I was a bit surprised. After watching a number of pro hockey games and witnessing the beauty and the brutality of the game, I did not expect to hear a battle-tested pro coach rank empathy as job one for a pro coach.
So who is Mike Eaves? Well, a person would be hard-pressed to find a coach who has a deeper or stronger resume for coaching at the professional level of sports than Mike Eaves. Mike grew up in a sports-centered household. His father was a collegiate hockey and football player at Ohio State University (where he earned his PhD) before becoming a college professor and collegiate hockey coach for the University of Windsor. Mike carved his own path by first becoming a standout hockey player for the University of Wisconsin, a perennial powerhouse on the ice, where Mike twice earned selection as All-American, and where he became the Badgers all-time leading career points scorer. Mike was also twice a member of Team USA National Hockey Team in the Ice Hockey World Championships.
After college, Mike was drafted to the National Hockey League (NHL), and played as a forward for the Minnesota North Stars before being traded to the Calgary Flames. Mike played out his career for Calgary and was called back from his short-lived retirement to take the ice in the Flames’ bid to win the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After the Stanley Cup playoffs, Mike quickly transitioned from playing to coaching, first at the college level, to be followed by assistant coaching roles for the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. In 2002, Mike was named head coach of the United States National Junior Hockey Team, followed by selection for head coaching duties at Mike’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. While leading the Wisconsin Badgers to national playoff bids, Mike also coached the U.S. National Junior Ice Hocky Team to their first-ever World Junior Ice Hocky Championship. Mike continued coaching at the collegiate level for a number of years before returning to professional hockey as the head coach of the Cleveland Monsters.