Darryl Sydor remembers driving to Xcel Energy Center thinking “that was it.”
The temperature was below zero on that morning, Dec. 30, after the assistant coach spent a sleepless night following the Wild blowing a three-goal lead at home to the New York Islanders.
The team’s coaching staff — every member in the last year of his contract — was under fire. Fans and media members were calling for heads. The owner was getting antsy and the general manager was under pressure.
With the Wild in the middle of a 5-12-1 slide, head coach Mike Yeo seemed headed for an immediate dismissal.
“There were days where it was really tough to come to the rink, not knowing what was going to happen,” said Sydor, a longtime NHL defenseman who came with Yeo from Houston when he became the Wild’s third head coach on June 17, 2011.
Yeo, the youngest coach in the NHL at age 40, was under intense scrutiny. Every decision was questioned. Every personnel move criticized. Every word that left his lips dissected.
Behind the scenes, Yeo stood firm. He didn’t panic, didn’t change his coaching philosophies. He faced reporters daily, answered the tough questions and never lost his cool. And most impressively, he kept the dressing room together, telling players how much he believed in them.
On Jan. 1, before practice following a sixth consecutive defeat, Yeo gathered the team on the ice and said, “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I’m going to coach not to try to save my job” but “to give us a chance to get back on track, get back in the playoff race and keep building toward our ultimate goal.”
The Wild won the next four games. It is 23-9-7 since, and has the third-most points (53) in the NHL over that span. This week, not only will Yeo coach the Wild in the playoffs for the second time, if the Wild beats Nashville in Sunday’s regular-season finale, Yeo will have coached only the second 100-point Wild team in franchise history.
Thursday morning, hours before coaching the Wild to a fourth consecutive victory, over the St. Louis Blues, Yeo sat in his office and looked back to the breaking point that became the season’s turning point.
“When you really care about something and there is a chance you could lose it, of course it’s hard,” Yeo said. “I know that it’s part of the job. I signed up for that and I accept that. I know I’d be OK, but when you go back home and you’re looking at your kids and they love it here so much and this has been more of a home to them than anywhere, that’s really hard.
“But honestly, it was like the harder things got, the more determined I got. It was also fuel for me. To me, this was part of the experience of growing as a coach that I hadn’t gone through yet that I knew I had to go through.”
Yeo, Sydor, veteran assistant coach Rick Wilson, assistant coach Darby Hendrickson and goalie coach Bob Mason are in the final days of their contracts. That’s almost unheard of for an NHL playoff team.
Despite the unenviable position, Yeo has mostly pushed the right buttons during the season’s second half.
“We’ve dealt with situations where it doesn’t look too peachy and you’ve got to find ways to win,” Sydor said. “You have to be a professional in all situations, good or bad. We have a job to do, and that’s where I give Mike a lot of credit. Through that tough stretch, he didn’t change his course, he didn’t change his belief in coaching. I think the players really bought into it.”
Defenseman Ryan Suter says that’s exactly what happened.
“It’s not your coaches that lose you games,” he said.