Accompanied by his trademark thunderous laugh, Andrew Brunette calls what has become the Wild’s daily custom “After Hours.”
Every day, long after most Wild players retire to the showers, the sound of blades cutting up the ice and pucks bursting off sticks echoes at whatever rink where the Wild is practicing.
Take a walk to the glass, and the scene is the same every time: 21-year-old forwards Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and recently called-up Jason Zucker working overtime with Brunette and fellow assistant coaches Darryl Sydor and Darby Hendrickson.
“This is why our organization loves these kids,” said Brunette, the fourth-leading scorer in Wild history who since retirement has taken on a dual role in the Wild’s coaching and hockey operations departments. “They’re willing to work. That’s the one thing you can say about all of our young kids is that they want to learn, and they’re willing to put in as much work as possible — sometimes probably too much work.
“The Ninos, the Grannys, the Charlies, the Zucks, they are out there all the time working on their game.”
Years ago, teams had two or three assistant coaches — max. These days, teams invest a lot of time and money into player development, from hiring young executives to act as traveling liaisons between prospects and the team that drafted them, such as the Wild’s Brad Bombardir, to hiring recently retired players like Sydor, Brunette and Hendrickson to work directly with the “kids.”
Sydor, Brunette and Hendrickson have combined for more than 3,000 games of NHL regular-season and postseason experience.
It couldn’t work if the kids weren’t willing to put in the work. The one thing you quickly notice about the Wild’s youngsters is how professional they are.
Recently, coach Mike Yeo had to march to the ice to pull the kids off on a game day.
After Coyle, Granlund, Niederreiter and Zucker leave the ice, they often can be found on the locker-room floor with young goalie Darcy Kuemper stretching together. They’re all in tiptop shape and are driven to be successful NHLers.
“Practice is good and everything and you learn obviously there, but I think going out and putting in some extra work helps,” Coyle said. “I think guys try to do it and other guys follow, and now it’s become a habit.”
Coyle and Niederreiter say it’s a huge asset having three coaches like Brunette, Hendrickson and Sydor, who have played in the NHL at a high level.
“They see the game and know the game and help you so much,” Niederreiter said. “They’re so good at telling you what you can do better and being positive with you.”
Brunette said the coaches all have their own special skill sets they try to instill into the forwards. Sydor works more often with the defensemen, although because of young Jonas Brodin’s hefty ice time in games, the coaches typically usher him off the ice rather than allowing him to take part in “After Hours.”
“We try to find the strengths and weaknesses in each player and work with them on that,” Brunette said. “Darby likes the tight turns and quick feet and moving and faceoffs. I like the in-around-the-net stuff, the passing stuff, the using the body on the wall stuff. Shot tips and net-front play is a big thing with all of us. So we come with different drills every day and work on that.”
Hendrickson often works with the centers Coyle and Granlund, while Brunette often works one-on-one with Niederreiter, teaching him the nuances of protecting the puck, deflecting pucks and getting shots off quickly.
The four forwards have become good friends away from the rink and love pushing each other at the rink.
“We like competing with each other and growing together,” Niederreiter said.
When Brunette was a young developing player in Washington in the mid-1990s, he worked in Portland with coaches Barry Trotz and Paul Gardner. Once he got to the NHL, he learned by absorbing everything veteran teammates Dale Hunter and Adam Oates did.
“We didn’t have the young coaches in the NHL to help,” Brunette said. “We got that in the minors, but this is a different era. These kids are getting opportunities where maybe in the pre-[salary] cap era they’re in the minors.”
With Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise injured, Niederreiter and Granlund have been skating on the so-called first line with veteran Jason Pominville, while Coyle and Zucker have been on the so-called second line with veteran Dany Heatley.
They all have made big impacts during a streak of five victories in six games heading into Tuesday’s game against Ottawa.
Coyle has two goals and two assists the past two games. Granlund has four assists the past six games and has won 59 percent of his faceoffs in the past eight games. Niederreiter has eight points in the past eight games and a game-tying goal and shootout winner. Zucker has three goals in the six games since his fifth call-up of the season.
“We have a lot of young guys on the team, and it’s not like we’re hiding them on the fourth line or our sixth D pairing,” Yeo said. “These guys are key players on our team. We need them to contribute and be effective. They’re growing big time right now. We’re asking an awful lot from them, and they’ve really been delivering.”