Coaching a year-round endeavor for Army

American Hockey League

? by Patrick Williams

In Part 1 of a two-part interview with Iowa Wild head coach Tim Army, he examined his coaching influences, changes in his coaching repertoire through 35 seasons behind a bench, the teaching element of the job, and how parenthood has influenced his coaching.

Those 35 seasons in hockey, 15 of them at the NHL level, have given the 58-year-old Army plenty of education. In an offseason chat that spanned nearly two hours, Army was more than willing to share those lessons.

Here is Part 2 of the discussion with Army:

On breaking habits to develop NHL-ready players

I think number one is everyone wants to have individual success. But it’s got to fit collectively, and I think that the biggest challenge is to get them to understand that [if] they’re going to play at higher levels, it has to fit with the whole group.

So getting them to understand that … you’re not the only guy on the ice. You’ve got four other guys out there with you, so your game will impact them. And with that is the connection that is their play away from the puck.

It might be because everybody wants to produce, and most guys [reaching] this level have produced fairly significantly wherever they’re coming from. Even players [ending] up as third- or fourth-line American League players, you look at their numbers coming out of junior or college, they were offensive players. You look at the National Hockey League, and you look at players playing third- or fourth-line roles. They were elite players whatever league they were in — European, college, Canadian junior — and they likely were elite scorers in the American Hockey League as well.

At certain levels, you can get away with sloppiness, you can get away with taking shortcuts, and the puck will find you because you’re that good of a player. But when you get to the pro level, and you start playing in the American League, you’re playing really good players who are just like you on the other side. If you don’t do the early work, if you don’t get yourself in a position to receive the puck, and be in a position to attack from that reception, you’re not going to produce.

So it’s breaking those type of offensive habits to put themselves in a position to take advantage of their skill level. We always say, ‘You can produce like you did before you got here, but you’re going to have to reconfigure it. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to get the puck, you’re not going to be in a position to attack. You’ve got to get inside to the guts of the ice. So that preparation, offensively, is something that takes some time to teach.

On what the AHL does for a prospect’s game

I know that [other leagues have] a lot of talent, but there’s no grind like the American Hockey League. The American Hockey League produces the most players, coaches, trainers, equipment staff, general managers, than any league in the world.

There is a reason for that — because it’s an absolute grind. The teams are good. The teams have talent. We’re all built the same way. There’s good coaching, the medical attention, the equipment attention … it’s top-notch. So it is the second-best league in the world, and there’s a reason why most people affiliated with the National Hockey League have come through the American League at some point.

On how an AHL head coach uses the offseason to improve

You review the year. And so you replay a lot. You replay some game situations. It’s kind of always in your mind. You know, maybe in this particular situation, I would have done this. I’ll do it differently next year. Just whatever it happens to be.

So you kind of review some situations throughout the year, whether it’s an individual meeting, a team meeting, a presentation, game situations, personnel in a game situation.

I liked a lot that we did this [in the 2020-21 season], and we had some focal points I think we achieved. So we’ll be continuing to look at can we add a little bit more to it, just add a little bit more deception to our game: What can we add to make us even better?

It’s like a golf game, right? You know, sometimes you drive well, your shots are great, and you can’t putt. Sometimes your play around the green is spot-on, but you can’t get off the tee. Man, that’s life right? Something’s always going to need work.

Then [I] touch base with the players probably three times over the course of the summer. We did our exit interviews, but again we’ll just call and tie it up. And then a mid-summer kind of a checkup. ‘How’s everything going?’

And then a month out of training camp, a strategy for training camp, and kind of bring all that together. So that I always enjoy doing. I’ll touch base with all the guys [who] played for us or any new signings we have.

Then [I will] watch the playoff games extensively. [Long-time NHL executive] Jack Ferreira once told me, ‘You know, as a coach, you’ll never watch the game the same way.’ And it’s true. You don’t. I don’t really watch the game for enjoyment. Well, no, that’s wrong. I love watching the games, but I just don’t watch the game. Like, I put a baseball game on, I love baseball. I just enjoy the game.

But [with hockey] I’m always looking at systems. I’m trying to study. These guys are exiting, this team is on the forecheck, what are they doing on the forecheck to disrupt them? What’s happening? What are they doing differently? Offensive zone, power play, penalty kill, always looking for something new, something that’s a little bit different that you haven’t seen.

And then I love to listen to the coaches after games [to hear] what’s on their mind. And then I play a game myself during the game. I pick a team. And if I’m doing matchups, how would I do the match-up? Is it in line with that coach? Is it different? If it is different, why? Why is that coach doing it this way? Then I’ll flip teams.

Offensive zone? Who would I put out right now? Six-on-five, who would I put out? What kind of face-off would I run? So I kind of play that game with myself. I’m trying to educate [myself].

[Tampa Bay Lightning head coach] Jon Cooper goes with 11 [forwards] and seven [defensemen] a lot. I don’t really like it. I can’t get a rhythm to it all the time. For him, it’s money the way he does it. It’s incredible. But it kind of intrigued me just watching it. I did it a little bit more [in 2020-21], and it wasn’t bad. Actually, the results were pretty good with it. So it doesn’t naturally fit. But you’ve got to be open-minded and try some different things.

I don’t think you’re ever not thinking about it. And even when you’re doing yard work, it’s probably what’s on your mind.

On building a winning AHL environment

We want to win in Des Moines, because I believe the goal of the organization is to win the Stanley Cup. That’s the goal. But if you don’t know how to win at the minor-league level, I don’t know how you can get thrown into the cauldron of the NHL, the best league in the world, and do it.

You can’t. You can’t learn it on the fly in the NHL.

So we’re playing winning hockey as well. I’m going to hold ourselves accountable to it. We expect to win in Des Moines, number one, because in order to succeed and help, ultimately, the Minnesota Wild, you’ve got to do it here. And we want to win. It’s a competitive world. We want to win for the right reasons. We want to win because it’s going to make Minnesota better, ultimately, and we have pride in what we do in Des Moines as well.

It’s expected that no matter who’s in our lineup, call-ups, injuries, we don’t even talk about it. We expect to win every night, whatever 20 [players dress], the best 20, we expect the way we practice, the way we do video, the way we go about our daily functions, we expect to win every night.

On talking hockey with other AHL head coaches

Only the coaches I really know do I sort of reach out to in that sense.

But I would say Ben Groulx is a coach I got to know a little bit at the All-Star Classic a few years back, and we’ve talked a little bit over the last couple years. I would like to sit down with him because I think he does a terrific job. I think he does a great job in Syracuse. For me, that’s kind of the model. They win, and they keep producing players for Tampa, which continues to perpetuate that.

[Colorado Eagles head coach] Greg Cronin, we talk probably once a summer. Greg and I have been friends for an awfully long time, and our careers, if you look at our track, sort of parallel each other. So he’s someone after we play him two games, I’ll go see him after the second game. I might even see him before the first game. But we talk maybe once a summer, we talk in-depth and kind of share some things. I always like to talk with Greg. We have a little different approaches. Personalities [are] a little bit different, but he’s good hockey man. He’s a great human being.

Jay Varady is another guy. Jay and I worked a Hlinka tournament together in 2010. I was the head coach. Jay was one of the assistants. Jay and I, we’ve had a good relationship over the years. I liked the way his teams in Tucson played. They were a tough out for us. They were tough. I love the way they played. And he’s a really terrific guy.

I’ve known Ben Simon for a long time. I coached Ben, actually, with the U.S. team over in Japan in 1995. It was an [under-18] team. Ben was a good player and had a really good career. So [when] I bump into Ben, we’ll have a good conversation. I think he does a great job in Grand Rapids.

J.D. Forrest and I worked together in Wilkes Barre, and we’re good friends.

I have a lot of respect for everybody in the league. The coaches do a great job. We all have a little different approach. We all have different personalities, and that’s how you learn. So those are some of the guys that I chat with. I look forward to chatting with them.

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