Not long before he turned 40 on July 31, Mike Yeo saw a picture of himself and thought: “I look really old. What happened? Where did all the lines in my face come from? Where did the hair go?” ¶ The Wild coach stopped cutting an anchovy on top of his Caesar salad and began to laugh, saying: “Well, I’m pretty sure I lost my hair before I got here, but it was definitely one of those moments where everything came together: I’m not a kid anymore. I’m almost 40.”
So on his 40th birthday, Yeo did something he had never done — he went white-water rafting on the Ottawa River. Along with his mother, Barb, brother-in-law, Devin, children, Braeden and Kyler, and wife, Tanya, the family leapt aboard a six-man raft.
“It was a blast, except, my wife didn’t fare too well,” Yeo said, chuckling … hard. “First time, we all got dumped and she didn’t like that. We talked her into coming in one more time and she was the only one to get dumped. After lunch, she went on the 12-man raft. They don’t flip.”
Yeo spent the summer recharging his battery for the 2013-14 season. His family lives on “Yeo Island” — a two-acre private island seven hours north of Toronto on Lake Nipissing. He says it sounds more luxurious than it is.
“It’s 150 yards from the mainland. We haven’t built a bridge yet,” Yeo joked.
But after spending the grind of the hockey season often away from home, Yeo cherishes the family time. He held his Stanley Cup party there after winning the silver chalice as a Pittsburgh Penguins assistant in 2009. And almost daily, he heads out on the lake alone to fish for walleye, bass, northern pike, muskie.
“I come back from there, and I can’t wait to get in the office,” Yeo said.
“A lot of times I’m out on the boat fishing, and I’m thinking of hockey without any kind of distractions. For me, a big part of me getting better as a coach is that reflection and evaluating myself.”
Yeo might now officially be in his 40s, but he still is the youngest coach in the NHL. This season in the realigned Central Division, Yeo will go head-to-head against some of hockey’s most experienced coaches — Chicago’s Joel Quenneville, St. Louis’ Ken Hitchcock, Dallas’ Lindy Ruff and Nashville’s Barry Trotz.
In two seasons, Yeo’s record is 61-55-14. The Wild ended its four-year playoff drought last season. In mid-December of Yeo’s rookie season, the Wild had the best record in the NHL. On April 1 last season, the Wild stood atop the Northwest Division.
Both were followed by slides, one that caused the Wild to miss the playoffs, the other that forced a must-win regular-season finale at Colorado to make the playoffs. Trying to determine why that happened — beyond the obvious, injuries — has been part of Yeo’s reflection, and heading into the opening of training camp on Wednesday, Yeo says he has never felt more confident in his abilities.
“Number one, I’ve got a better grasp of the players, which is important from every aspect to putting them in the right situations and the motivation in how to deal with them day in and day out,” Yeo said. “When I reflected, I realized how much I learned last year. I’m still growing as a coach, which means I’ve made some mistakes.
“But I’ve learned an awful lot about myself, and that means things that I do well and things that I needed to get better at. And I think I’m ready to take another step.”
Yeo didn’t want to give specific examples, saying “a lot of that’s for me.”
But generally, Yeo said one of his biggest faults is he wants to do everything himself.
“After the game I want to spend a lot of time breaking down the video and doing stats and a lot of that stuff, and because of that, I lose a lot of time thinking about the bigger picture of things that I need to think about,” he said. “So I need to do a better job relying on my assistants.
“I’m going to spend a lot of time analyzing game situation stuff, and more than anything else I’m going to make sure our players are in the right frame of mind every night.”
Yeo confesses that the Wild hasn’t been “a good adjustment team,” both when it comes to adjusting line combinations (Yeo didn’t make line changes or power-play personnel changes in the Wild’s first-round series loss to Chicago) and in-game systematic adjustments.
Yeo, like many coaches, felt handcuffed during the lockout-shortened season, because whenever he wanted to change lines or implement strategic adjustments, there was little to no time to practice.
“This year will be different,” he said. “We’ll have better preparation going into every game so the players are ready for adjustments, whether it’s personnel or strategic. I want to have multiple options for different parts of our game that we can on the bench flip a switch and go one to another. I felt last year we drifted away from that and became too comfortable doing one thing.”
Yeo is entering the final year of his contract. He says that doesn’t worry him. But because April’s fall in the standings nearly cost the Wild a playoff berth and because of the quick playoff exit, Yeo knows some pundits already placed him on the hot seat.
In an offseason where veteran coaches such as Ruff, John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault became available, Yeo is thankful that General Manager Chuck Fletcher stuck by him days after losing to Chicago.
“He gave me the job in the first place and then doing that? It’s fair to say I’d go to war for him,” Yeo said. “People are going to talk about it. It’s inevitable. How many coaches last more than two years in this league? I’m not going to get caught up in that stuff because I’m focused on what’s real, and I know that this team has gotten better and I know that I’ve gotten better as a coach and I know that my best years are still ahead of me.”