Yeo is off to a good start with his Finnish leaders

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2011 - 8:42 PM

The Wild's new coach traveled to Finland to meet with Mikko Koivu and Niklas Backstrom, knowing their belief in him could go a long way.

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New Wild coach Mike Yeo

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As he interviewed for the Wild head coach job, Mike Yeo shared with General Manager Chuck Fletcher a laundry list of tasks he would tackle right away if he got the job.

If he is going to change the team's culture, Yeo said, he needed to meet with his players long before training camp rolls around. Waiting until his players report to work Sept. 16 would be a mistake and a waste of valuable time.

Yeo wanted to talk to as many of his players as possible -- preferably face to face -- to outline his vision and expectations so they wouldn't spend the first few days of camp going through a meet-and-greet. He went so far as to schedule home visits with captain Mikko Koivu and goalie Niklas Backstrom. In Finland.

In a calculated gesture Koivu later described as "classy," Yeo made a quick trip to Finland last month to introduce himself to two of his most important and respected veterans in the locker room.

Yeo spent time with each player on consecutive days, talking hockey and his coaching philosophy. He wanted to break the ice before they hit the ice, knowing full well the importance of having a symbiotic relationship -- with Koivu in particular -- as he embarks on his first season as an NHL coach.

"I want these guys to feel as important as I believe that they are," Yeo said.

This was a smart and proactive move by Yeo. He could've waited until Koivu returned to the Twin Cities in a few weeks and invited him to dinner. He could've called him long distance and chatted. Instead Yeo sent a clear message to his captain by hopping on a plane and meeting him on his turf.

Yeo realizes he needs a strong advocate in the dressing room as he installs his system and program. Yeo, who just turned 38, exudes confidence but also is the youngest head coach in the NHL. Fair or not, that label brings scrutiny and certain preconceived notions.

Yes, he had success with the Houston Aeros and as an assistant in Pittsburgh. But he's going to be judged in the locker room on his actions, not his résumé.

Any first-year head coach is going to be tested by his players. Not everyone accepts change or buys into a new regime at the same pace. That's why it's important that Koivu is on board. He carries significant clout inside the locker room, not necessarily as a rah-rah vocal leader but as the team's best all-around player.

"We had a good day together," Koivu said by phone from Finland. "It gives me confidence and I know what his expectations of me are."

Fletcher accompanied Yeo on the trip. The plan was to have dinner with Backstrom in his hometown the first night and then spend the next day with Koivu at his offseason home. A series of delays caused Yeo and Fletcher to miss two connecting flights and cancel their dinner plans with Backstrom.

They had breakfast the next morning and talked for three hours, which Backstrom described as a "fresh start."

Koivu picked up Yeo and Fletcher in his boat later that day, and they spent about 10 hours together. They had smoked salmon finger sandwiches for lunch, and Koivu grilled up steaks for dinner. They drank a few Karhu (Finnish beer), talked hockey and got to know each other.

Yeo told Koivu about his philosophy and changes he intends to make and even discussed some possible line combinations, although neither was willing to share that publicly just yet.

"Usually what happens in Finland stays in Finland," Koivu joked.

Yeo also asked Koivu for his input on some things and reinforced the value of maintaining an open line of communication with his captain. Koivu said Yeo isn't looking for players to change their personalities or be something they're not. Both also realize a new coach's relationship with his players takes time to develop and won't happen in one day.

But Yeo's trip was a good first step in that process.

"Mikko is our captain," Yeo said. "He's a guy when it comes to the coach, he's going to have these guys on board and going out and doing the things you want them to do. If we can make a little headway with that and hopefully get him buying into and believing in the things we're talking about right now as opposed to a month into the season, then we're just going to be that much further ahead."

Chip Scoggins • chip.scoggins@startribune.com

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