Mike Yeo still has his sense of humor.
After a wide-ranging interview for the first time since being relieved of his Wild coaching duties Feb. 13, Yeo walked to his truck and pulled out the old “Frank the Tank” line from “Old School.” “I’ve got a nice little Wednesday planned,” Yeo cracked. “Going to go to Home Depot and buy some wallpaper.”
After coaching the Wild for five seasons, Yeo suddenly has a lot of free time. Earlier this month, when the Wild lost game after game, Yeo knew one of two things would happen: a trade, “or it’s going to be me.”
But, when General Manager Chuck Fletcher delivered the news after a home loss to Boston on Feb. 13, Yeo said, “I wasn’t prepared for what it would feel like. … When it first happened, it buckled me.”
He shared a beer, a laugh and a cry with Fletcher, then left messages on the dry erase boards in the assistant coaches’ office, John Torchetti’s new office (Yeo’s old office) and the players’ lounge.
Still, Yeo’s emotions ran the gamut of anger to deflation so his wife, Tanya, suggested he get away. Yeo drove alone to Lake of the Woods for three days of ice fishing. He caught a mess of walleye and posed for a selfie with a 40-inch northern.
Other than a snippet of the Wild’s victory last week in Edmonton, Yeo hasn’t been able to stomach watching the five games (4-1) since his dismissal.
Yeo, 42, watched his son, a junior in high school, play a sectional semifinal hockey game on Wednesday. While visiting his daughter at her college in Colorado last weekend, “I woke up one morning and, all of a sudden, I was back. I am so motivated right now it’s not even funny. … Somebody who is looking for a head coach, if they want experience, I’ve got it. If they want somebody who is young and hungry, I’ve got it.
“Everywhere I’ve gone at every level, as a player, assistant coach, head coach, I’ve won. This is the only place that I’ve been where I haven’t gone to the finals or won a championship. And I think I just ran out of time for that.”
Yeo discussed Wednesday where he felt things went wrong, his system that some felt shackled players, trade rumors he felt derailed the team and a perception that former NHL coach Adam Oates intruded on the team while helping two key players.
The Wild made the playoffs three consecutive years, advancing to the second round two years in a row. It ran into midseason trouble the past two years but found a way out of it. This season, there was no escape. Sixteen losses in 19 games and eight consecutive led to Yeo’s departure.
Unrest in the room
Yeo pinned blame on reports in January that the Wild made an offer for Columbus’ Ryan Johansen, who ultimately was traded to Nashville. There were Jonathan Drouin (Tampa Bay) rumors, too. He feels players such as captain Mikko Koivu were adversely affected because it became public the Wild was searching for a No. 1 center, as were the young players (Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter) purported to be on the trading block.
“Those trade rumors hurt us,” Yeo said. “There were some players that were probably hoping it was going to happen, and there were some players upset it was even talked about. … These are things that shouldn’t have broken us. … That was the beginning of the end for me.”
Yeo voiced no regrets about what many perceived as a double standard in his treatment of youngsters and veterans, but he did infer that there’s “issues” in the locker room: “There were younger guys and there were the older guys. It wasn’t just a group.”
He also voiced displeasure with Oates, a Hall of Fame player who used to coach New Jersey and Washington, watching a Wild morning skate from the stands before a game against Buffalo on Jan. 12. Oates apparently is a paid consultant to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
“I would say that I would not do the same thing,” Yeo said.
This season did seem to get off on the wrong track when before training camp Parise and Suter brought Oates to Minnesota to work privately on skills and the power play. That didn’t sit well with Yeo or Fletcher, who met with both players.
“I felt a lot of things right from the start of the year,” Yeo said. “We had the best [first half] in franchise history and things never felt right.”
Asked if it started with Oates, Yeo said: “Whether it’s something like that, whether it’s the trade rumors, whatever it is, when there’s things that might cause a little unrest, they kind of sit there and they hang out. When things are going well, they’re forgotten and pushed to the side.”
Since his dismissal, players have cited more freedom and a green light offensively from Torchetti. Yeo noted how the Wild was one of the best 5-on-5 offensive teams last season and a top-10 offensive team through the turn of the new year. But he felt “the way we were built, our bread and butter had to be defense. … If they go out and score five goals a night for every game the rest of the year, then I was wrong.”
Asked about the midseason swoons that became a staple under him, Yeo said it could have been fatigue.
“I’m an aggressive, attacking, in-your-face, hardworking team,” he said. “If we lose a little bit of that playing an aggressive game, the worst thing you can do is be in between. And it felt like sometimes we were a little in between.”
Yeo has no doubt he’ll be better in his next head coaching job. In the meantime, he’ll watch hockey and probably do some national broadcasting.
Asked what he’s most proud of about his tenure, Yeo joked: “Got myself fired. Raised the expectations.”
“We changed the culture here,” he said. “We expect to win. We have standards as far as work ethic and discipline. The things that make you win. I think I brought a game that is consistent. I put my heart and soul into it every single day to try to win a championship, to try to help the players. There was never a day where I mailed it in and didn’t give everything I had to this job.”