After years stateside and a stint as the head coach of the Florida Panthers, the Hamilton-born coach is coming back to Canada as one of the new assistant coaches of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's a gig that carries a lot of weight and high expectations from a fan base that's starved for success after years of mediocrity.
CBC Hamilton spoke with Horacheck from Florida to talk about his new team, what it will take to make the playoffs, and if Hamilton should ever get an NHL team.
Q: You have a bit of an interesting perspective on the Leafs, considering you coached against the team last season with the Panthers. What were the strengths and weaknesses you saw when coaching against them?
Well, in a situation like that you’re not really analyzing to say ‘this team is stronger in this situation.’ They have had explosive guys scoring like Kessel, they have the ability to have a really good power play, they had some people in their lineup that were dangerous.
For me to analyze all the details of their strengths and weaknesses – I was going in as an interim head coach in Florida with a group of young guys, and so I was more worried about what our team was all about. That’s where I usually put my focus – on the team that you’re on.
Q: What about when you’re going into the Florida dressing room to talk to the guys before a game against the Leafs – are there specific things you would tell them to focus on?
Well, I concentrate on our team. I’m going to tell those guys that they have a very dangerous power play. I’m going to say that we need to spend a lot of time working hard on our game and making sure that we have a strong forecheck and make sure that our defensive game is strong so that we’re not giving up free opportunities and we’re going to make them work for their opportunities.
The pre-scout on the other team is going to talk about how they’re going to do their neutral zone and how they’re working in certain areas, and where we can exploit it. But I’m going to spend most of my time working on what our team can do well and make it how we want to play, and make the other team make adjustments to us.
Q: So what changes need to be made to make this a playoff team next season?
That’s a decision that all the coaches are going to sit down and talk about. I’m right now in Florida with Randy [Carlyle] and we’re all going to get together here next week for the first time.
I haven’t spent any time with Steve [Spott], haven’t spent any time in detail with all the other coaches being in the same room. We’re going to get through all that stuff. That’ll be decided and talked about and we’ll get down to the details about how we want to play.
Q: What’s been the most important off-season addition to the team so far?
Obviously adding a couple of veteran defencemen is really going to be a help. Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak are really going to be valuable veterans. Settling your defensive zone and making that a stronger area to play is going to be important for sure.
But I think as a whole, I think all the players and the accountability of the players who are returning from last year, the players who were the team leaders on the team – all have to feel it.
Along with the coaches, the accountability of playing up to their capabilities and playing better and not feeling like last year was satisfactory. We have to feel that together and we have to go through that accountability together. We have to make us a lot harder to play against.
Q: So will you be working more with the power play or the penalty kill?
We talked about both scenarios, what our strengths are, what we’ve done in the past and what we’ve worked with. When I was in Nashville I worked with the defence, and I had Ryan Suter and Shea Webber.
Being in Florida was a different role, being on the head coaching side of it. We’ve discussed it, we’ve talked about it, and those are all in the meetings that are going to come forward.
Q: And seeing as Nashville was so sound defensively for years, that’s a side of the game you can bring to this team, you think?
I think a team has to be really sound defensively. If you want to not just make the playoffs but also be strong in the playoffs, you’ve gotta be strong offensively. You’re not going to give up offence – I’m not saying you’re going to give up playing offensively. You want to do it – but you do it with a strong defence.
The best offence comes from a strong defence. You make the other team turn pucks over, you make the other team struggle getting their offensive zone time – all that stuff works together hand in hand.
We had a lot of success in Nashville on the defensive side of it, worked with some really good people in Ryan Suter, Shea Webber, Kevin Klein, Roman Josi – I think those are all really top people. That’s where it starts too – having good people. I think that’s where we can get to. I look forward to that.
Q: So being from Stoney Creek, did you grow up a Leafs fan?
Where I grew up in the 70s, you were either a Montreal fan or a Leafs fan. When I was growing up I liked players on the Leafs, I liked certain guys and the way they played – I wasn’t necessarily a Leafs fan growing up on a day to day basis and having Leaf posters, but I enjoyed them a lot.
I kind of bounced back and forth between them and the Guy Lafleur days in Montreal when I was 10 and 11 years old, but they were winning championships at that time. When you’re winning championships, a 10 year old’s eyes get big, you know? You start looking at all those guys – but there were certainly a lot of guys I liked watching on the Leafs. But at that time, they didn’t win, so it was a different animal.
Q: What did it feel like coming from a market like the one in Florida coming to Toronto where the scrutiny on this team is so intense?
I embrace it. I think this is very exciting. I know they get a lot of scrutiny. The fans are very knowledgeable and they’re going to comment on that. But I think that’s part of what we are as coaches and hockey people. We’ve gone through the trials and tribulations of getting there and winning championships and being focused on that, so I don’t think that’s a detriment.
People think it’s a lot of pressure, but I think it’s a good way to stay focused. Canadian markets are great. The fans are into it, people love it – I think it’s a great opportunity to have success and get everybody excited about what’s going forward.
Q: And as an admittedly loaded question around these parts – do you think Hamilton should ever have an NHL team?
Well, that’s pretty difficult to answer. I haven’t spent much time there in the last few years. I was in Nashville when RIM was going to buy the Predators and move them to Hamilton and then maybe move them to the 401. I think that there’s some great history there – I love that Toronto has this great market of people who want to see the games and you have to will your tickets. I think that’s great.
Hamilton’s pretty close, and would put a big triangle between Toronto and Buffalo. And are they going to build a new arena or are they going to expand Copps Coliseum? I certainly think that it would make a huge dynamic with three teams being that close to each other and being that close to other teams around there – and they certainly could support it.
I don’t know what the dynamics of ownership is – TV markets and the money that’s involved and the corporate sales – but all that kind of stuff makes it difficult for the other markets.
I think that from a hockey standpoint it would be a great rivalry. From the business standpoint I think the owners and business people probably wouldn’t like it too much.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.