For a guy who was as hard-nosed a player as could be, whose crooked nose still reminds you of how hard he played the game, Adam Foote is remarkably calm and clear in conversation.
On the bench, he’s a beacon of calm in a storm of emotions, defenceman Ian Cole says. Things might be going awry, players might be getting down on themselves, but Foote cuts through the noise and helps his charges collect themselves and refocus.
“He’s very good at keeping things calm,” veteran defenceman Cole said. “When guys are losing their minds on the bench, when coaches are frustrated with players, whatever, he seems to me like he’s the calming presence we need.
“It is a very emotionally charged environment, right? Everyone is like super-competitive, really wants to do well and anxiety is through the roof.”
Then he mimicked a comic scene, one where the players are guttural ogres, overwhelmed by the moment, unable to communicate properly.
“Guys are going, ‘Agh, what is going on? I screwed up! Agh!’ ” he demonstrated. “You need someone to be like, ‘Hey. Relax. Coaches relax. Players relax. Everyone f–king chill. Get back to work. Do what we do. Like keep rolling it over.’ And I think that is where he’s really, really great. Just unbelievable presence.”
Asked about his apparent instinct toward keeping an even keel, Foote went back to his playing days, and lessons he learned along the way.
“There’s obviously a way to talk to these guys but I think being an older player in the game when I played, you just keep talking straight at them and there’s no reason to get too wound up,” he added.
“The guys are great. I think we just have open conversation.”
The best coaches seem to be born with a knack for it — but it’s not always a skill set that reveals itself right away.
His immediate boss, Rick Tocchet, had to move quickly to find an assistant to bring with him when he was hired as Canucks head coach last January. Hiring a coach midseason rarely means you’re picking from a deep list of options, rather, you’re looking at flawed resumes — or coaches with basically no resume at all.
That was Foote. The two had kept in touch over the years — Tocchet was an assistant coach in Colorado two decades ago, with Foote still in the middle of his playing career — and his knowledge of the game always impressed Tocchet.
The veteran blueliner had helped coach his sons’ rep teams a decade ago and he had been a skill development coach for the Colorado Avalanche, later working in a similar role for Kurt Overhardt’s KO Sports agency.
And he had a stint coaching the Kelowna Rockets for parts of two seasons, though that stretch wasn’t exactly covered in glory.
One-on-one skill development is one thing. Planning and then executing a high-quality practice plan for elite athletes is a whole other beast. There was learning to be done.
“About a million per cent,” Tocchet replied when asked about how much Foote had improved as a coach, even in just a few months.
Still, Tocchet had long been impressed by how Foote saw the game. He was just someone that needed some mentoring.
“He kind of dipped his toe when he first got here. And now he’s got it. I walk in and he’s got s–t already done. I appreciate that. He’s got practice under control. He knows what I want. He’s got it dialed.
“He’s got autonomy too. He can make some calls. He doesn’t always have to ask me.”
That said, Foote hasn’t been afraid to ask questions.
“I love the fact that he asked me questions, even on ‘D’ stuff, on how I want things and how he’s taken in what I believe in. And he teaches it,” he said. “And I listen to him too. But it’s not like he’s 50/50 on something. Even if he doesn’t agree on something.
“Listen, we’ve had some arguments. He’s one of my best friends. But when we leave that room, he teaches what I want. There’s also times when I leave the room, it’s like, ‘Man, Footy’s right here. I want to do it the way he said.’ I think that’s great chemistry.”
Foote gave credit to his old teammate and old boss, Colorado Avalanche president Joe Sakic, for first getting him into the skill development game. Former Avs coach Patrick Roy at one point said he wanted Foote to run his defence, but Foote knew he wasn’t ready.
His boys, Cal and Nolan, where still young and he wanted to be home for them. And he wanted to learn how to coach. So he helped out the boys’ teams — and he worked out a deal as a part-time coach with the Avalanche, learning the ins-and-outs of skill development.
“So I did two years as their home assistant, I learned a lot off André Tourigny. Great coach. Awesome coach. We worked well together,” he said.
Clearly, the teacher was always in him. He’s found a way to relate what he knows, what he sees, what he’s figured out, to his players.
It all goes back to how he found success as a player, he figures. As an old-school hard rock defender for the Nordiques/Avalanche and the Columbus Blue Jackets, he had to be ready for the opposition’s best players. That meant studying ahead of time, of trying to understand what his opponents did best and how he could stop them.
“I had that role where I’m trying to stop these different players, whether it’s speed or they had a shot or they were big and heavy. You just have to adapt your game. Depending on if you’re playing a power forward … how am I going to not get beat by their ‘A’ game?”
He retired in 2011, then started helping out with his boys’ teams. That was the next step in his journey, he said. Faced with a new generation of athlete, ones who were growing up in a world driven by social media and very different principles from when he was young, he sat back and did he best to understand their world.
“When I grew up, my dad would say jump off the cliff. I’d say, ‘I’m scared.’ He goes, ‘It’s 40 feet, there’s no rocks, do it now. You’re not getting chips tonight or whatever.’
“And here now, it’s different with these kids. ‘OK, well, I’m gonna tell you here’s how you survive this jump. It feels great. Let’s explain it.’ And that’s probably good. Society’s changed … it’s a good thing too,” he said.
Quinn Hughes said he really appreciated the tone that Foote, Tocchet and the rest of the coaching staff — Sergei Gonchar and Mike Yeo — have brought to the table.
“I feel like I can talk to (Foote) about anything and we’re lucky to have him,” he said. “He coaches you how he’d want his kids to be coached, he has two kids in the NHL and he understands the pressures not only as a player but also as a parent and as a coach. So I think he looks at it from those three perspectives,” Hughes added.
“I think a lot of coaches, they don’t know how to connect with their players and talk to them and teach them. I’ve heard stories around the legal of coaches just reaming out their players or whatnot. He’s able to connect with you and talk to you and teach you and I’ve learned a lot from him as a player, but also as a person too.”
Foote listened to what the sports psychologists he knew were telling him about how young athletes understood and engaged with their world. They’re conditioned to be active participants in the process; the fact they want to know why they’re being asked to do something isn’t out of defiance, it’s out of interest.
“I don’t know everything, that’s for sure … But that’s what I’m learning … These guys just want to know that you’re in it with them. It’s been fun”
And that’s the third thing about his success: Foote realized there was a lot he didn’t know about how the game worked. He needed to keep an open mind. And Tocchet, it’s clear, has been a special mentor for him.
“I can’t believe how much Rick knows about the game. It’s incredible. He studies it. He’s a great experience,” he said. “He just knows. And it’s fun to learn, like what a forward should be doing. I have a pretty good idea but he’s taught me a lot.”
They appear to be a great fit. The Canucks’ play so far this season has been as tight as it’s been in years.
“The system that they brought in it makes it easier for me because we’re not defending as much and you can rely more on where everyone’s going to be,” Hughes observed.
Myers was early in his career when Foote was wrapping up his own playing career. He knew the player, but the coach has come to impress him equally as much.
“He’s been extremely hands-on, it seems every day we’re talking about something and not just talking about it, he’s showing us specifics on technique, different situations. He’s showing his body position,” he said.
“You can see the improvements. I can feel it in my game and I know you can see the improvements in everybody … just everybody on the back end. It’s been great. He’s been awesome.”
Myers echoed the stable, predictable structure Foote and Tocchet have been working to put in place. It’s like stepping into a picture, with everything already in place.
“Even just as simple as not having to think as much about what’s going on in the game. You know exactly what’s expected of you,” Myers said. “Knowing what’s expected of each guy, the position they have to be in. You don’t have to think about if another guy’s doing his job. You can just focus on what your job is and playing it hard. Those are adjustments and things that we’re talking about on a daily basis.”
If, as a Canucks’ fan, you’re still trying to get your head around a legend of a longtime rival coaching the team you cheer for — try being a player who grew up cheering against his coach.
That’s Cole, who grew up in Michigan a Red Wings’ fan, who saw the Avalanche as an even bigger rival that Canucks fans probably did. He had played with Foote’s son Cal in Tampa Bay last season, but didn’t know the older Foote much beyond the player he had always seen on TV.
He certainly didn’t know Foote is relatively short on coaching experience.
“He’s very detailed and very analytical as a coach, which is, I don’t want to say too surprising. I just didn’t know what to expect. I was like, ‘Wow, he’s super-dialed into the details and positioning the stick.’ That was really impressive, how he seemed like he was an extremely polished coach.”
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