For Wild coach Yeo, hockey is a way of life

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2012 - 10:21 AM

"Passion" might not be a strong enough word. Mike Yeo loves hockey, lives hockey. Always has. From his childhood to his dream job of coaching in the NHL.

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Mike Yeo is not only a hockey coach, but he is a hockey dad. Last month he and his wife, Tanya, said goodbye to other families after watching their 12-year-old son, Kyler (behind them), play in a game in Rosemount. The Yeos also have a daughter who plays hockey.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Star Tribune

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The locker room door swings open and a young boy charges in, excited to meet Mike Yeo and pose for pictures with the first-year Wild coach. As they shake hands, Yeo leans down and asks a question.

"How are you in shootouts?" he says.

The boy looks alternately stunned and curious.

"We could use you," Yeo says with a smile.

Yeo moves on to the next locker room, where he takes more pictures, signs more autographs and shares a few minutes with another youth hockey team at a recent charity event. He looks completely at ease in this environment, a rink rat at heart, his own childhood dreams of playing in the NHL still fresh in his mind.

He never made it that far as a player. Too many surgeries on too many body parts cut short his career. He took a different path instead, one that requires a clear vision of how to influence a game's outcome from behind the bench, a resource he needs now more than ever.

Once the surprise team of the NHL, the Wild has tumbled in the standings. Yeo admitted last week that he hasn't slept as well during the slide, but nothing in his words or demeanor suggested a concern that the situation won't improve.

"I love the challenge of getting us through this," he said. "I love the opportunity."

The Wild's decision to give him this opportunity and make Yeo, at 38, the youngest head coach in the NHL was viewed as a risk. Concerns about his age and his never being a head coach at this level ricocheted through an echo chamber after his hiring.

Not to those who know him best, though. They viewed it simply as fate or, at the very least, the reward for a guy who lived his life with a singular purpose of reaching hockey's highest level.

To them, this is the payoff for all those hours Yeo spent alone on a frozen pond in a small town north of Toronto -- even on Christmas mornings, when he would race through gift-opening so he could go work on his game some more.

This is the payoff for leaving home at age 17 to live with a host family and play juniors with the hope of advancing his career.

This is the payoff for three shoulder surgeries, two knee operations and a hand so damaged from sticking up for teammates that it required a plate and four screws to fix.

This is the payoff for all those coaching clinics he attended, all the notes he kept, all the questions he asked of people he admires -- a list that includes youth coaches, grizzled veterans, even Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

This is the payoff for a guy who was chosen captain of numerous teams, not necessarily on talent but because he considers dirty work a badge of honor and the right way to play the game.

"Whatever it takes, right?" Yeo said.

That's a favorite expression of his. Whatever it takes. It sums up everything about him.

Frozen and open water

The ideal day, Yeo explains, must include his two passions: hockey and fishing. Maybe an afternoon game -- a big win, he notes -- a few hours on the lake and the night spent with his wife, Tanya, and two kids, Braeden and Kyler.

That's his childhood in a nutshell. If he didn't have skates on his feet, he had a fishing rod in his hands. Years ago, he circled Minnesota as a perfect place to live because of its combination of hockey and lakes.

His life revolved around hockey. He practically lived at the outdoor rink down the street from his home in North Bay, Ontario. He played pickup games with his friends for hours, and when they got tired or went home, he kept skating.

He once had a youth coach who forbade players from skating on game days. Yeo disguised himself by pulling a stocking cap low over his face and hit the ice.

In summer months, he rifled pucks at the garage door, leaving it covered with dents, and battled his older brother, Paul, in street hockey. Depending on the day, Mike played the role of NHL idols Wendel Clark or Cam Neely or Rick Tocchet. He loved guys who played with an edge.

He craved that life, too. He wanted to play in the NHL more than anything, if only for one shift. It drove him, made him work harder. He cut out photos of NHL players and pasted them in notebooks. He had his path mapped out.

"He wouldn't let anybody interrupt his vision," said his father, Wayne.

Apparently not even the Sandman. Wayne and wife Barb checked on their son one night after hearing him talking in his sleep. They entered his bedroom and got a little play-by-play of his dream. "Mike Yeo shoots, he scores!" he mumbled.

"His life was hockey," his sister Karen said.

He loved and respected the game too much to treat it any other way.

"I was never the best player, but I still believed that I was going to go play [in the NHL]," he said. "I would do anything that I could. If that meant spending more time in the gym or more time on the outdoor rink and sacrificing some other things, to me it was well worth it."

He was a grinder, a scrapper, the kind of player who would impact a game without scoring. He had some offense in his game as well, but he relished doing all the other things -- blocking shots, delivering a big check, fighting when needed. He played that way in juniors, in the minor leagues and figured that would be his ticket to the NHL, too.

He was tough and fearless, even as his body began to fail him. He had a memorable bout with Todd Bertuzzi in juniors and racked up 511 penalty minutes in 317 games with the Houston Areos.

"I kind of adapted," he said. "I don't think I was ever going to be a superstar so I found my niche as far as being a hard-nosed player."

That style mirrors his personality. He's not one to scream and throw tantrums. His is more a quiet intensity. Fiery but not crazed, firm in what he expects but also fair. His steely glare after a bad shift leaves no ambiguity.

"You know when he's not happy," his mother said.

Yeo espouses bulldog hockey. He's quick to praise players who stick up for teammates or sacrifice their bodies. He lauded Darroll Powe's shot-blocking after a game in which the Wild scored five goals. Yeo walked into his postgame presser grinning after a heated, rough-and-tumble game against Edmonton.

"That was ice hockey," he said.

His lighter side

Not everything is so serious with Yeo, though. Family and friends often see a playful side, his ability to deliver a one-liner at the perfect moment. They still laugh about his proposal to Tanya, which included a fake ring, a boat ride and the big question. When she said yes, he went to give her the ring and "accidentally" dropped it in the water. (Yes, she still went through with it.)

That he proposed in the middle of a lake is not surprising either. When he needs to recharge, he jumps in his boat and goes fishing. That's always been his escape.

His parents own a small island on Lake Temagami in northern Ontario. The family spent entire summers there, living in a cottage that had no phone or TV. The place became an outdoor playground to Yeo, who bought his own 2-acre island on the lake four years ago.

"I get up early in the morning and go fishing and be back before anybody's even up," he said.

Every summer, Yeo hosts a men-only weekend on the island in which his Canadian and American friends compete for the coveted CanUSA Cup. Everything is fair game in the competition. First fish caught, largest fish, island bocce, poker, Yahtzee, whatever.

"As long as there are two Americans and two Canadians on opposite teams, it's a sanctioned event," said Geoff George, Yeo's best friend since high school.

The winning side gets a trophy, which initially began as a coffee mug adorned with a maple leaf. A different, more prestigious trophy also has visited the island. Yeo was an assistant in Pittsburgh when the Penguins won the championship in 2009. He celebrated his one day with the Stanley Cup by bringing it to his own piece of paradise, among other stops, which included a cancer hospital and community center in his hometown.

He's motivated, he said, to host another celebration like that with his current organization.

"We want to win here because I think the market deserves it, for one thing," he said. "The people are so passionate and so ready for a winner here."

As he talked, he kept a close eye on Kyler's game on the ice below. Kyler, 12, and Braeden, a freshman who plays on her junior varsity team, share their father's love of hockey.

Their dad's schedule doesn't allow him to attend all their games, so he enjoys every chance he gets. He watches from two perspectives.

"I'm always Dad," he said, "but I'm always a coach, too."

At one point in the second period, Kyler skated hard toward the net, found the puck and pushed it past the goalie.

"I told him if you want to score goals, go where goals are scored," Yeo said, pausing for a few seconds. "That was good."

He smiled. Whatever it takes, right?

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