The coveted Stanley Cup is in their hands once again. The Tampa Bay Lightning won a second consecutive NHL title in July, and the back-to-back champions sparked a surge of excitement in Champa Bay that is still going strong. TAMPA Magazines had the pleasure of speaking with the man who led the franchise to victory.
Q: What is it like to be the coach of a team who just won back-to-back Stanley Cups?
A: It’s surreal, to be honest. You work so hard for so long. It’s a lifelong dream. When I was a small kid growing up in Canada, I always wanted to win the Stanley Cup. To achieve it is a thrill.
Q: You’ve achieved so much in your 20 years of coaching hockey. Is this your career highlight, your mountaintop moment?
A: There’s no question. I’ve been fortunate to be part of championships all along at different levels. The difference here is you’re doing it at the greatest league in the world. To fulfill that goal, it’s an honor.
Q: What factors contributed to your latest victory?
A: My wife (Jessie) sums it up in three things: having an understanding wife, a loyal dog and one hell of a goalie. On a serious note, it’s years in the making. The support of the owner (Jeff Vinik), the general manager — (formerly Steve) Yzerman and (Julien) BriseBois, the players’ commitment, and the coaching staff to pull them in the right direction, it’s a culmination of all these events. It took us a little trial and error before we found the right recipe. You’ve got to adapt to what works. It takes buy-in from everyone, and when we got that buy-in, things really clicked for us.
Q: You’ve coached the Lightning for eight years. When did you feel you really found your stride with the team?
A: As a coach, I felt like I was getting stronger every year in the league. Probably the tipping point for us was when we got swept by Columbus in 2019. We had a record regular season, tied 62 wins, thought we were a shoo-in and were knocked out in four quick games. That was probably the ultimate wake-up call for us as an organization and a team in what we needed and how we needed to commit to win.
Q: What challenges did you and the team have to overcome this past season? How did that compare to the previous season’s challenges?
A: Before the first year, you have to answer the critics when a team as talented as ours gets swept. The mental side of our challenge, that was probably the biggest thing for us. Then we brought in new players, and getting everybody in sync was a challenge. And then the pandemic and going into an isolated bubble for 65 days away from friends and family in a hotel and then competing for a Stanley Cup was probably the ultimate challenge. And then the next challenge was to motivate (everyone) to do it again. My phrase is, “Are we full yet or are we still hungry?” Are we done winning or do we want to do it again? Do we want to create a legacy and become a legend back to back? (Nikita) Kucherov was out for the entire regular season. He was our leading scorer. Eventually we made the playoffs and Kucherov came back to us and we won another Stanley Cup. It definitely has not been without some adversity, but championship teams find a way, and those guys found a way.
Q: Did any players surprise you last season with how they stepped up or grew? Who was the team member most hungry for the win?
A: I can say that about a lot of players. Some of the quote-unquote players that aren’t used to scoring scored some huge goals for us and those used to scoring and did score for us stepped up and did some of the gritty work you don’t often see. Everybody put the team first and that’s why we won.
Q: Do you notice a special team bond in a winning season? What does winning do for you and the team?
A: From past experience, the teams that won championships, there’s a constant communication between them for a lifetime because of the challenges, the battles, the wars you went through. There’s an old saying I did not come up with: You win together, you’ll walk together forever. And it’s very true because you reach the top of the mountain and it’s just a common bond that nobody can ever take away from you. Every person who looks at the Stanley Cup will see our players’ names on there forever. It creates an inseparable bond.
Q: What was it like to repeat victories? Is it true that it’s harder to stay on top than to get to the top?
A: For me personally, I would rather have people chasing me than no teams chasing us, and the reason for that is that means we’re already a good team. I tell our guys we can’t shy away from being the best. But it is harder to stay on top, just the motivation factor on both sides — your motivation and those who want to knock you down. You have to have buy-in from the players, and fortunately we did.
Q: Describe the difference between winning the cup in the bubble in 2020 versus in front of the home crowd this year.
A: Winning your first cup, nobody will take that feeling away from you, and it was unique that we did it with no fans in the building. But what I did like about that year was the celebration in the locker room after with just the staff and players. It was a really, really intimate celebration I’ll never forget. Because we were in a bubble and couldn’t go anywhere, we all celebrated together and there was nobody else pulling us in different directions. And thank goodness for FaceTime to have fun with your family. It was just coaches, players and support staff. We really got to go in depth with the players, their feelings and spend some time with them in a way you really don’t (normally) get to have. I remember that being a special moment to drink champagne out of a cup, smoke a cigar and talk about the wars we went through. It was exciting, exhilarating, and one of the big ones was also relief because it feels like there’s so much pressure to get there and it’s so hard to win a cup that you’re broken down to almost tears. You’re like a little kid and it’s an amazing, amazing feeling. The next year, it was almost meant to be to win the championship at home. Being able to see your family in the crowd and wave at them, see the joy and excitement on the fans’ faces, hear the roar — the players deserved that. And the celebration was epic. They were two entirely different situations, and I’m so glad I got to experience both.
Q: The boat parade came out of the circumstances of the pandemic. Is it here to stay?
A: I don’t want to give the pandemic credit for anything but I think the boat parade is not only here to stay but it will be adapted by other cities. They’re calling the city Champa Bay for a reason — the Bucs won the Super Bowl this year, the Rays made it to the World Series last year and hopefully will win this year. We’ve really gotten to show off how fun the boat parade is. It’s unique and so much fun.
Q: How did you reward yourself or celebrate privately?
A: Unfortunately, the first year we won, because of the pandemic, you didn’t really get to share the Stanley Cup with anybody, so I didn’t get the traditional day with the cup. That was tough but it made the second time that much more special because then you got to show it off. The first year, we took it to first responders and shared it a lot with the community. The second time, for more of an intimate setting, I took the Stanley Cup to a golf match with 30 people and everyone played a hole with it; I had a huge party with family and friends; and I took it to many local establishments. The big thing is the satisfaction and awe of drinking out of the Stanley Cup. I probably poured it into thousands of people’s mouths this time. I was fortunate to have it for two days, and the morning after the Stanley Cup left, my fingers, arms and forearms were sore. I’m like, “Am I getting arthritis at this age?” But after a few days, it went away and I realized it was from the Stanley Cup.
Q: It seems the whole city has turned blue and white with Lightning banners, signs, billboards and flags. How does all of the community support make you feel? What message would you like to tell the fans?
A: In this community, before we won the Stanley Cup, we had 250-odd straight sellouts, and people don’t realize what a hockey town Tampa has become over the years in the time I’ve been with the organization. We’ve had some heartbreaking losses and our fan base never left us. For them to stick together and then be rewarded with the Stanley Cup and then a second one on home ice was fate for our fans. They deserved it and it was a thrill.
Q: Will the Lightning win a third consecutive Stanley Cup?
A: You’re going to have to get your tickets and find out.