The Wild fired coach Mike Yeo on Valentine's Day eve, and he talked Wednesday about his dismissal.
"I’m a winner," Yeo said. "Everywhere I’ve gone at every level. As a player, assistant coach, head coach, I’ve won. This is the only place that I’ve been where I haven’t gone to the finals or won a championship. And I think I just ran out of time for that."
In a wide-ranging discussion with beat writers for the Twin Cities newspaper, Yeo talked about where he thinks things went wrong (Ryan Johansen trade rumors, a divide in the locker room, frustration throughout the team); his system and struggling power play; the spectre of Adam Oates (a paid skills coach of Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and others around the NHL) showing up at a Wild morning skate in January; and what's next.
Have you watched the Wild games after you were fired? “No. I tuned it for a little bit. But not much.”
Was that a conscious decision? “Just wasn’t really feeling it. I tuned in a little bit. I just wanted to see if the systems looked the same.”
Did the systems look the same? “Yeah. I saw not a lot of things that looked different. One little thing in the neutral zone, but for the most part, things looked the same. I could be wrong. Again, it was a small sample size what I watched.”
The one thing is the third guy high seems to have more freedom? “Yeah, we could do that, too.”
[Yeo was fired on Saturday, Feb. 13, after a home loss to Boston.] What was that night like? Did you walk right into your office and see [General Manager Chuck Fletcher]? “Yeah, we sat around for a bit. There’s always a lot of people down there, so Chuck waited for a few people to clear out and then we chatted. I went into my office to grab my stuff to get ready for the road and then he followed me in and told me.”
Was [owner] Craig Leipold there? “No.”
What was that conversation with Chuck like? “Tough. That was tough. Not only do I have a lot of respect for him, but we’ve got a lot of history, too. I don’t know. It was a hard thing for him and obviously it was a hard thing to hear.”
[Fletcher said] you guys shared a beer, a laugh and a cry? “Yeah. That’s very fair. I told him, ‘At least you can do is grab a beer and have one with me right now.' I’m not going to say it was shocking, but I wasn’t prepared for what it would feel like, that’s for sure.”
Did you have a feeling the dismissal was coming? “I said something to the assistant coaches after the game. I mean, there was a feeling that, I think you could trace it almost back to the Ryan Johansen trade rumors [the Wild was in trade talks for Columbus center Ryan Johansen, who was traded to Nashville in early January] that there was a feeling for almost waiting for change or playing for change or just waiting around for something to happen. So I knew that it was two things, obviously it was going to be a trade or it’s going to be me. So I knew it was a possibility. But you think you’re prepared for it, but I would say that I wasn’t.”
What happened down the stretch? Deep down now, do you even believe this had to happen? “No. No, I don’t. I think certainly [firing the coach] can give you a jump, it can give you a little boost. I don’t think, long-term success, the answer is just providing a quick solution to a problem. I think you have to learn how to work through those. I think we had proven that we had something that could work, so just because we were going through a tough time doesn’t mean that it’s not going to work again. I’ve looked around at a lot of the teams that have been real successful, and they’ve gone through ups and downs, but they’ve had consistency, they’ve had continuity and I think that’s part of their success.”
Does it amaze you that after navigating through years of goaltending turmoil that you survived that and couldn’t get through this? “There’s always something. There’s always new challenges. This one was unique. I felt a lot of things right from the start of the year, let’s put it that way. We had the best [first half] in franchise history and things never felt right. I think it was a little more of a battle all year than it had been in the past. The biggest thing was when the slumps came. There were no issues before that, but once that happened, that completely took away from our game. I think that was the beginning of the end, that and the trade rumors.
[Former NHL coach Adam Oates was hired before the season by several players as a personal coach; two of the players were Zach Parise and Ryan Suter of the Wild.] When you say things never felt right, did this start with the Adam Oates stuff? “Yeah. I thought we dealt with it. We talked with Zach, and we had no issues with it after that. And talked with some players, and … Whether it’s something like that, whether it’s the trade rumors, whatever it is, when there’s things that might cause a little unrest, they kind of sit there and they hang out. When things are going well, they’re forgotten and pushed to the side. But when things don’t go well, quite often they come back.”
Do you feel betrayed by some of the guys you deferred to? “With all due respect, I totally disagree with the 'deferred to' part. I mean, my time here, I’ve scratched players. These are veteran guys. I don’t think I’ve seen anything different what’s going on right now. You look at what our team is, our leaders are our leaders. I put them in charge. Are there some things I would do over again differently? Yeah, for sure. But it’s not like we had somebody else that was all of a sudden going to get 100 points. There was never a time that I didn’t put the person on the ice that I thought was going to give us the best chance for success. I believe in my players very much. Whenever I come into a game, regardless of what’s happened the last game or even the last week, I’m always expecting their best game. I always prepare the game expecting their best game.”
But do you think though that the younger guys eventually resented the older guys because the older players were never benched, scratched or put on the fourth line? “I think that there was ... a disconnect. But this has gone on for a little while between older guys and younger guys. And I don’t think it’s one sided. I think every team in the league has some issues, and I think that we dealt with things fairly well for the most part, but obviously they became bigger once we started to lose.”
Can you be more specific about this apparent divide? “No. It just felt like there were almost two groups. There were younger guys and there were the older guys. It wasn’t just a group.”
Do you think the leaders need to do a better job of including the younger guys? “I’ve been on both sides. Because you don’t go to a party together doesn’t mean that you’re not a great teammate. Trust me I’ve felt a lot of different things since this has ended, but I’m very, very grateful for my time with every one of those guys. Those leaders, we’ve done some really good things and those guys are at the forefront for the reasons as to why.”
Did it bother you that Oates came to the Buffalo morning skate [Jan. 12]? That was at the start of the tailspin? “I’m not going to even comment on it. But I would say, that I would not do the same thing.”
In the last week, some guys have said that they don’t have to play as defensively. Is that an unfair criticism, or a convenient one, or is your system too defensive? “That’s up to everybody. For me personally, I will not change. We spent more time working on offense, talking about offense in my time here. Before the trade rumors and before things started to go south, we were I think eighth in the league in offense. And we’re doing that without guys that get 100 points a year. We were doing that collectively through our lineup, so that to me tells me that the game that we were playing can produce offense. I look last year, I think we were fifth in the league in 5-on-5 offense, so I don’t buy that one bit. And not to mention, I’ve said this right from the start and I’ve said this to the players and I’ve said this to the fans, my goal was not to be a good regular-season team. My goal was to win the Stanley Cup. And you look at the Stanley Cup last year and you think of those two offensive powerhouses – Chicago and Tampa Bay – and it’s the Finals every game for the most part of a 2-1 game or a 1-0 game. So I wouldn’t change a single thing about that.”
How would you describe your system? Players now say they have more freedom, a green light to go? Did they under you, too? “Oh God, yeah. But I would say as things started to get worse, when we were giving up goals against, what were we going to say? Stop turning the puck over and bear down defensively? Year after year since I’ve been here, we’ve been one of the top defensive teams in the league in terms of shots against, quality of shots against and we give ourselves a chance to win every single night. So, it’ll take me some time to reevaluate, to figure it out. I mean, if they go out and score five goals a night for every game the rest of the year, then I was wrong. But the way that I saw it, I felt that the way we were built, we didn’t have guys who traditionally or historically have gotten 100 points a year. I didn’t feel that we were built that way. I knew that we could create offense. We had produced, but I knew that our bread and butter had to be defense, or at least that was my opinion.”
How frustrated were you with Thomas Vanek at times, and the dropoff of Jason Pominville the last two years? “What I’ll say is obviously we got to a point where scratching Thomas became a big deal. But there were many, many times where I worked with him, talked with him and told people, ‘No, I’m not going to scratch him tonight because he’s going to respond, he’s going to play.’ So it didn’t end well, but I actually enjoyed my time with Thomas. He’s a very unique personality. Might come across sometimes the way you watch him play as a guy who doesn’t care, but he actually cares very much.
"And Pommer, obviously he wasn’t producing. I knew that confidence was a big part of that and I was watching his game. we had some pretty hard discussions behind the scenes. I felt like he really responded, I felt like his game was coming along well. He was generating a lot of chances, but he just wasn’t scoring. I felt like if he could get one or two that he could get back on a run. I also felt that it would be real hard for us without those guys. That was my point, my message when we were talking about doing these things [scratching them]. I have no problem doing it, but there has to be an end game. And if this is going to make them better, great, let’s do it. But if it’s just going to take them out for a game and they’re not going to get better and we’re not going to find a solution that’s going to make us better, then we’re just treading water.”
Do you feel let down that Chuck never made a trade? “We talked about … one thing, we could have, if I would have told Chuck, ‘Do this,’ we talked about a couple things, I knew that it might have given us some short-term relief. But what I’ll say is I didn’t cheat the team. I knew that it might have helped us in the short-term, but I didn’t think it was going to help us in the long-term. That might have helped me. But I stayed true to the goal that I want to win a Stanley Cup, not win a few games here in the month of February.
“Those trade rumors hurt us. That’s the way I feel. I feel like there were some players that were probably hoping it was going to happen and there were some players upset it was even talked about. That’s my opinion. I could be wrong.”
You’re talking Johansen and [disgruntled Tampa Bay winger Jonathan] Drouin? “Yeah I think so. I could be wrong. I had some conversations. If there was a trade happening, I know I had some conversations with some of the players that were mentioned in those trades. And for me, I was not lying, I didn’t want to see them go. I liked our team. Obviously if a trade comes along that’s going to make your team better, you’re going to do it. But it was a tough thing to get around.”
Does that go back to a division between young and old players? “I don’t know. Trade rumors, every team has to deal with that. These are things that shouldn’t have broken us, shouldn’t have been that much a factor. It didn’t take much for our game to slip a little bit. And when our game slipped a little bit, players started to struggle individually. That was the beginning of the end for me when players started to struggle individually.”
Did Parise’s frustrated attitude disappoint you? “I’ve had a couple really good conversations with Zach. What we’re talking about right now is what we also love about him. He is a fierce competitor. I truly believe that with a lot of us, a lot of our greatest strengths also come out as our greatest weaknesses. You could say that I’m maybe too loyal, but that’s also one of my greatest strengths. You could also point to a guy like Zach and the passion he has and the work ethic and the pride he plays with. It can surface the other way too. It’s been a frustrating time and I’m way past any kind of disappointment or frustration toward anybody. I’m ready to move on.”
Was [goalie Niklas] Backstrom’s situation frustrating [Backstrom has not played, but is on the team because he could not be bought out]? “That was a tough thing all year to deal with. I’ve got a lot of respect for Backstrom. He was one of the first guys to text me after I got let go which to me was pretty impressive given what he has gone through. I wanted to find something that would work for both sides. For me personally, I never wanted to punish him, I never wanted to try to sit him out on purpose or anything like that. Never wanted to make him feel like he wasn’t part of things. But I felt like priority No. 1 had to go to Dubnyk and we chose that priority No. 2 was going to go to Kuemper. It was a tough thing to deal with. Obviously it’s been not a great situation for everybody. He would like to play and I think that cap space could obviously go someplace else to.”
How do you look at the annual midseason slumps? “I don’t know. I’ve looked at it a couple different ways and seen a couple different things. I think that I’ve seen fatigue play a part in it. You ask me to describe our system – our system is aggressive. People can say we’re defensive, but I don’t want to be a team backing up. I’m an aggressive, attacking, in your face hard working team. If we lose a little bit of that playing an aggressive game, the worst thing you can do is be in between. And it felt like some times we were a little in between. I look at it – we for the most part since my time here, one thing I’ve seen is if we’re going to win, we have to be on it. It doesn’t take much for you to be off it. I felt there are some teams that maybe can be off it for a little bit, but can go score five or six goals a night. We didn’t seem to be one of those teams.”
There seemed to be a disconnect on who was running the power play? “What I can say is, I’ve been in those offices and I know that Andrew Brunette does a great job. The [players are] prepared. Every game they know what to expect from the opposition, every game they have a plan going in. And then once that happens, that’s the coach’s main job. You have to enforce and hold guys accountable, but I can say that [Brunette] does a really good job. What it comes down to is there have been a lot of times when we haven’t had success. It’s human nature in a lot of ways to try to self protect a little bit in those times. It’s not an easy thing to do to just own up to it. Every guy that has played a part in that power play – myself definitely – has been part of the problem.”
What are you most proud of during your tenure? “Got myself fired. Raised the expectations (laughing). If you look at it that way, there was a time where we would’ve been OK being in the hunt. I think if they would’ve kept me on, I still think we would’ve made the playoffs. But I don’t think that we’re satisfied with that anymore and that’s a good thing. We raised the expectations and that was my goal. What I’m most proud of is we changed the culture here. We expect to win. We have standards as far as work ethic and discipline. The things that make you win. I think I brought a game that is consistent. I put my heart and soul into it every single day to try to win a championship, to try to help the players. There was never a day where I mailed it in and didn’t give everything I had to this job. And I know that I’ve learned a lot on the way. I have grown a lot and I’m going to be that much better going forward.”
What is going forward? Is the goal to find a head coaching stuff? “Without question. There’s not a doubt in my mind that I’m a head coach in the National Hockey League. There’s not one. I will say when this first happened, it buckled me. I’ve been in this game 20-some odd years and I’d never been traded or fired. To have those kind of feelings all the sudden, it hit me hard. I was in Colorado this week visiting my daughter and I woke up one morning and all the sudden I was back. I am so motivated right now it’s not even funny.
"Maybe one thing I regret is I’m not a self promoter. I’m not a guy who is going to talk about the things I did to help us win. When we win, I’m going to talk about the players and what they did. I believe that’s the correct way to go about things. I think when they win, you want them feeling good about it, you want their confidence. I never wanted to make it about me, but I know that I’ve done a lot of really good things here. Even this year I was the third youngest coach in the league, but look at the experience I have. Somebody who is looking for a head coach, if they want experience, I’ve got it. If they want somebody who is young and hungry, I’ve got it. I guess more than anything else, I’ve got the fire. And I’m a winner. Everywhere I’ve gone at every level. As a player, assistant coach, head coach, I’ve won. This is the only place that I’ve been where I haven’t gone to the finals or won a championship. And I think I just ran out of time for that.”
Will you, over the next two months, watch much hockey? “Obviously when you’re sitting in your basement it’s a little different than in front of your computer. But I will watch pretty much every other team. I know our team, so I’ll watch a little bit here and there just to see if there are any changes and to see the effect of those changes. I think it’s going to take some time to see the effect of those changes. It takes a little bit of time for those things to really take affect and see the result. But I know the group here and the way that they play, so I’ll spend a little more time watching other teams around the league.”
You have one year left on your deal ... Will you scout for the Wild, have you talked to Chuck? ““Yeah. I’ve had a couple offers for some different things. From like broadcasting and stuff like that. Just analyst stuff.”
Temporary gigs? Would you consider it? “Yeah. I would definitely consider it. Being Canadian is tough because there are so many coaches that are Canadian. I would also like the experience of going to the World Championship. So that’s something. I don’t really have a plan.”
Have they offered you a World Championship job? “No. That doesn’t come out until later. I don’t know if they will or not. If that came about, I’d be very interested in that. We’ll see.”
Then in mid-April will you start looking for a head coaching job? “The unfortunate thing for anyone in our business is for me to get a head coaching job, somebody has to lose their job. I don’t wish that for people. Obviously I want to work again. But the reality is, every year really good coaches get fired. When I was let go, the people that I heard from and the messages they had – coaches that I looked up to the most and coaches that are the best in the league – and I started realizing that they’ve been fired one, two, three times. Then you start to realize it can certainly happen to you. And that’s the reality of our game. Almost a quarter of the coaches each year are let go. So there will be openings. If there’s a team out there that wants somebody that’s going to win a lot of hockey games for them, I’m probably the right guy for that. But we’ll see. I’m not in a rush. I’m not sitting around hoping that teams are going to lose and that there will be jobs. I know that there are going to be openings and I know that if I get an opportunity to prove myself in an interview and spend some time with them that I’ll be working again soon.”