Reviewing Behind the Bench

A book Review of Behind the Bench; Inside the Minds of Hockey's Greatest Coaches by Craig Custance

There is a dearth of books on hockey. At the top of any list of the greatest hockey books, Ken Drydan’s The Game is at the top of the list by 31 lengths. Hockey books that come into the discussion at number two include Jack Falla’s Home Ice and Open Ice and Wayne Coffey's The Boys of Winter. With the publication of Behind the Bench, Craig Custance puts his work into the discussion for number two on the list.

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Behind the Bench is a look at the minds and methods of eleven of the best hockey coaches in the game today. More than a discussion of Xs and Os, Custance takes a unique perspective, and turns a hockey book into a leadership book, similar to what one would find in the business section of the local Barnes and Noble. Custance leadership themes that run throughout the book include the ability to manage talent, the role of luck, and the role of self-reflection, enabling leaders to engage as lifelong students of their profession.

As an Army Officer, I found many of Custance’s insights similar to what I have observed in the military (I wrote this a couple years back on how hockey prepared me for life in the military). For instance, coaches had their own theory and ways of managing talent. At the professional level, this seems to be key to success. Each coach from Dan Bylsma and Jack Sullivan who coach Sidney Crosby and Geno Malkin, to Joe Quenneville who has coached Blackhawk teams with the talent of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kaine developed a method to motivate the greatest players in the world. Moreover, each coach had to find ways to encourage the second and third tier players in their respective championship runs.  It becomes apparent that the ability to manage talent in professional hockey relates to the ways that commanders and leaders manage men and women serving under them.

A second insight Custance brings out is the aspect of luck. Indeed, the great military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, in his seminal book On War, wrote of the effects of Fog, Friction, and Chance. Specifically, Clausewitz wrote that chance is the unpredictable circumstances that consistently occur in war. In each game, a lucky bounce of the puck or a missed call can be the difference between victory and defeat. Indeed, Coach Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks stated, “That’s a part nobody ever wants to talk about when winning a Stanley Cup. Luck is such a big part of it.” Chance, in war and in hockey reigns supreme.

A third insight worth mentioning is realizing that nobody has a monopoly on knowledge. Custance writes that the best ideas on advancing the game come from rookies and veterans alike.  While interviewing Mike Babcock, Coach Babcock states, “That’s how you create change. You steal ideas from CEOs. You steal ideas from other coaches. You steal ideas from the person who serves up the coffee at Tim Hortons.” The best military leaders understand this powerful philosophy. From the rank of private to four star general, everyone has something to offer.  

The book is not without its shortcomings. Custance is all over the map in his interviews and discussions with some of the coaches. Although Custance articulates the philosophy of each coach, they go back and forth between philosophies on coaching, leadership, and life. A better structure within each section could make this book even better. 

A second shortcoming is the reliance on current coaches. Although some of the great coaches such as Al Arbour and Bob Johnson have passed, an improvement on the book would have included an interview with Glen Sather, coach of the Oiler’s 1980s dynasty, or even Scotty Bowman, coach of multiple Red Wing Stanly Cup championship teams. Understanding how these men managed the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Each of these men would meet Custance’s criteria of having won either a Stanly Cup, World Championship, or Gold Medal.

 Coach Melody Davidson of the 2010 Canadian Gold Medal Hockey Team

Coach Melody Davidson of the 2010 Canadian Gold Medal Hockey Team

In terms of selection, Custance limited his interviews to coaches of men’s teams. Both the United States and Canada continue to field the best in women’s hockey. Ben Smith coached the USA team to a gold medal in 1998, while team Canada won on home ice in 2010 under coach Melody Davidson. At the very least including, a chapter or two on women’s coaches could lead to a wider audience.

What Custance leaves on the table is a desire for a follow-on book. His interview with John Tortorella exposes an aspect of professional coaching few people consider. Spouses and children tend to make enormous sacrifices. With Tortorella, his wife gave up a solid and well-paying professional career early in Tort’s career. This was a risk, as professional and financial success would come much later in life. Further, this success was not a sure bet. As Custance states, “John Tortorella took a job that paid him next to nothing, even when his wife had one that could have set up his young family for years.”

Family sacrifice seems to be an unexplored topic of professional coaches. Head and assistant coaching jobs typically last a few years before a team moves in another direction. A head coach and his or her family must be comfortable with uncertainty. Even at the highest levels, where salaries can mitigate the impact of these decisions, kids still make friends at school, and the constant moving from city to city takes a toll. This topic is near and dear to my heart, as it is to so many other military families who pack up and move every three to four years.

Overall, Behind the Bench is a worthwhile investment to add to any leader’s bookshelf.