Years of sortable clutter helped forge Yeo's NHL dream

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2011 - 12:37 AM

The Wild's Mike Yeo let no scrap of hockey know-how and wisdom go to waste, using every bit of experience to realize his goal of coaching in the NHL.

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Mike Yeo forgot little of what he learned from hockey instructors and mentors as he became a professional player and then a coach.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Mike Yeo pulls out a great big dusty bin filled with manila and olive green folders.

He starts flipping the hundreds and hundreds of pages, skimming through the years of memories and motivational sayings and hockey knowledge gained along a 20-year journey to becoming the Wild coach.

It's clear this is a man who has studied his whole life to get to this point.

"Look at this one," he says. "Bar of soap, Milk, Fruit, Deodorant ... Dinner."

Spread across his desk is evidence of a former hockey player who, even as a teenager, started to think about becoming a coach.

During his junior and minor league days, Yeo would race home right after practice so everything was fresh on his mind. There, he'd do homework.

He'd jot down drills that coaches like Dave Tippett would deploy in practice or how Terry Ruskowski would teach his forecheck.

"One day, I remember my roommate, Mark Freer, walked into the hotel room, and was like, 'What are you doing, man?' " Yeo said.

There were pages and pages of hockey teachings, from when he would attend the Roger Neilson Coaching Clinics to when he joined Glenn Patrick's coaching staff as a 20-something in Wilkes-Barre.

There are sheets of paper on synergism, oodles of quotes that hit home and motivational stuff, such as the Acquired Needs Theory and Expectancy Theory.

Some pages are wrinkled, some faded, some stained, and some apparently doubled as his grocery list for that day.

"I started coaching at Butch Turcotte's hockey camps when I was 15, and I knew then I loved teaching kids," Yeo said. "I probably screwed up some kids at that time, but I loved doing that every summer.

"When I started playing, I wanted nothing more than to be a player. I was chasing my NHL dream like everyone else. But there came a point, maybe as my body started to break down and I realized more and more that I was a marginal player, that I started to lose some of that belief."

The debut

Saturday night, when the Wild plays host to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2011-12 opener, Yeo will step behind the Minnesota bench as the NHL's youngest coach at age 38.

The third coach in Wild history will be nervous, but that will be nothing compared to the dozen family members who will gather in front of Barb and Wayne Yeo's television in North Bay, Ontario.

"I'll probably hide a couple tears," Yeo's father said.

Like many Canadian kids, Wayne Yeo knew early that his son had caught the hockey bug.

"We lived in Unionville, just north of Toronto, and the coach of the Jets would have a little morning skate on the day of the game," Wayne Yeo said. "He'd tell the kids to go home, get some rest and ramp up for the game.

"Mike wouldn't rest. He'd fly through the door, drop his equipment, go out the back door and down to the frozen pond right up until game time."

But Mike Yeo was never one of the best players on any of his teams.

"My first two years of junior, we probably had close to 20 guys drafted, and I wasn't one of them," Yeo said. "I remember going to try out for the Sudbury Wolves, and I had a coach tell me, 'Don't bother going, you're not going to make it.'

"Luckily I was pretty stubborn and didn't listen to him. I spent the first two years basically on the fourth line in junior."

Yeo played with such future NHLers as Michael Peca, Glen Murray, Sean O'Donnell and Derek Armstrong.

"Mike Yeo was a little better than a fourth liner on our junior team," said Peca, who retired last year after 14 NHL seasons. "He had the chiseled jaw and the Brian Bosworth haircut. He looked like a Marine coming in as a 17-year-old. You could just tell he was one of those guys that paid attention to detail.

"He was always the hardest-working guy on and off the ice and had this way about him. When I was traded my second year, he was the most respected player on the team."

Yeo's brother, Paul, remembers "he was going to do whatever it took for the team to succeed, and if somebody needed to step up, and give the team a bit of a boost somehow or create some energy, he recognized when that point was."

Mike Yeo would check, hit, grind it out defensively and fight anybody.

"I remember one Wolves camp, one of the Rivers brothers, I think Shawn, jumped on his back. Mike turned around and put him out the rest of the tryout," Wayne Yeo said.

Wayne's son had four surgeries in his first four years of junior because he wasn't physically ready to play this style, and it would foreshadow a 5 1/2-year minor league career where his body broke apart.

Playing and learning

During a five-year playing career in Houston, Yeo learned from assistants such as Tippett and Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel initially, and ultimately Tippett as a full-time coach.

"Yeosie had a quiet determination about him as a player," Tippett said. "He was very knowledgeable, he was very thoughtful about the game, very passionate about winning."

Tippett would eventually make Yeo captain, and he was tough as nails. In 1999, with the Aeros trailing in Game 6 of the conference finals, Yeo sought out the Chicago Wolves' roughest customer, Jeremy Mylymok, and pounded him.

Yeo broke his hand, missed Game 7 and the entire finals en route to an eventual Aeros Turner Cup.

"But it was the emotional boost in the series," said Todd Sharrock, the Aeros' PR guy at the time and now a Blue Jackets executive.

Yeo is proud of his fighting career. How proud?

Last year when Aaron Boogaard -- the late Derek Boogaard's brother -- was trying out with the Aeros, Yeo, the Aeros' rookie coach, skated over and "made me aware he was the all-time leader in majors for Houston ahead of Derek," Aaron said.

Yeo had 51 majors with Houston, Derek Boogaard 48.

"At least half my fights were jumping in for teammates, if not more than that. And that's the way I want the Wild to be," Yeo said. "I want teams to know if they hit Mikko Koivu or Pierre-Marc Bouchard or Dany Heatley, there will be guys to answer to. That doesn't mean running around like a bunch of idiots, but it does mean if one guy is in there pushing one of our guys, they should be surrounded by five Wild jerseys."

Cup winners

Yeo spent five years as Pittsburgh's assistant, working hand in hand with Sidney Crosby, learning alongside head coaches Michel Therrien and Dan Bylsma, going to two Stanley Cup Finals -- winning one.

"Two years ago, I asked [former NHL defenseman] Jay McKee, 'What's Mike Yeo like as a coach?' " Peca said. "He just flat out said, 'He's going to be a head coach one day. He's bright, he knows the game, he's got a passion for teaching and we all love him.' "

After guiding the Aeros to the Calder Cup finals last year, Yeo was up against hefty competition for the Wild opening. Craig MacTavish was considered the front-runner, with Ken Hitchcock and Yeo a close second.

Most felt GM Chuck Fletcher would go with MacTavish after Todd Richards' tenure ended in two years.

"I'll be honest: That ticked me off a little bit," said the ever-confident Yeo. "I really believed that I was deserving, and more than anything, I believed I was the right person for the job.

"I wouldn't have blamed Chuck if he went a different direction, but I wanted to be judged fairly. I'm not bashing Todd, but we have different personalities, different experiences."

Finally, Fletcher called Yeo, who is married with two children, in mid-June to "offer" him the job.

"The first part of that conversation, I'm thinking to myself, 'I didn't get it,' " Yeo said. "He almost posed it like a question. I was just like, 'Sign me up.' It's hard to describe what I felt at that moment. There's few moments in your life that you know you'll remember for the rest of your life, but that's one of them."

Yeo was on the phone with his brother, Paul, when Fletcher buzzed in. When Yeo called back to tell him he got the job, Paul replied, " 'Get the heck out of here,' and with all sincerity, too," Yeo said. "And my dad, there's not a lot of times I've heard my dad speechless."

Now the blood-and-guts minor league player is determined to build a championship environment in Minnesota.

Yeo knows he's got to sell the fans in the process. After all, Yeo may carry himself with a certain swagger, but once upon a time, Richards was a promising hire, too ... until he wasn't.

"I'm just a piece of the puzzle here. I have a great staff that I will count on like crazy, and a bunch of players I believe the world in," Yeo said. "We're going to do it together. It's a process. It starts with the way we play the game and what we bring to the rink every day.

"That's how we'll create an assumed sense of greatness here. That's how we'll create a team to be proud of."

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