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Horachek named Leafs' interim coach, takes charge in post-Carlyle era

01/07/2015 07:00 EST | Updated 03/09/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - The whistle was in Peter Horachek's mouth and players' eyes were on him when the Toronto Maple Leafs began the post-Randy Carlyle era. There was little doubt who was in charge.

The Maple Leafs officially named Horachek interim head coach Wednesday after 24 hours of uncertainty about the role he and Steve Spott would play in the aftermath of Carlyle's firing. Horachek had the experience of being the interim coach last season with the Florida Panthers, so it was natural to give him control in Toronto.

"I think he did an excellent job with the Panthers last year," said Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, Horachek's longtime boss in Nashville. "This is a great opportunity for him on an interim basis. There's no question that he's head-coach material."

Horachek lost his Leafs debut to his mentor, 6-2.

Trotz, who had Horachek on his staff with the Predators for 10 years, said he has always seen his protege as a head coach.

"He's knowledgeable and he's got good balance in terms of player relationships, systems, all that," Trotz said in a phone conversation Tuesday. "He's disciplined, he demands accountability, but he can communicate. Some guys demand accountability and can't communicate. He demands accountability and he gets respect because he communicates."

Carlyle was demanding, but one of his drawbacks was a communication disconnect with players. That's an old-school mentality that can work to a point, but also wears thin with players who want to know why they're sitting or getting less ice time.

Unlike Spott, who's a popular players' coach, Horachek isn't a polar opposite of Carlyle. The 54-year-old is more of a hybrid.

"I would say he's fair," Trotz said. "Players will recognize that he's very fair in his decision-making and his doling out of ice time and all that. He's not afraid to tell it like it is when it's needed and he's not averse to putting his arm around a guy."

Defenceman Jake Gardiner, never one of Carlyle's favourite players because of mental mistakes, has appreciated Horachek's honesty all season as an assistant coach.

"I think he's been really good about that this year," Gardiner said. "It's nice when you know where you stand with coaches and on the team in your role."

Horachek, a Hamilton boy born in nearby Stoney Creek, Ont., wants players to be accountable to each other and not see him and the rest of the coaching staff as enemies.

"You have to make them feel like it's OK to talk to them," Horachek said. "My door is open, they can come in and have their opinions, I can tell them what's going on. I can (give) them an opportunity to say what they want. They're not feeling like my thumb is on top of them, they're feeling like we're in this together."

For a decade, Horachek and Trotz were in it together. Horachek was on Trotz's staff from 2003 to 2014 and was promoted to associate coach for his final three seasons with the Predators.

When Horachek stepped in front of the cameras to address the media at Air Canada Centre for the first time as interim coach, he joked that he thought Trotz would talk alongside him. No, this was his stage.

Horachek had already coached 66 NHL games going into Wednesday night, going 26-36-4 last season with the Panthers after replacing Kevin Dineen. Before his foray into the NHL on Trotz's staff, Horachek was an accomplished coach in the minors.

He led teams to the playoffs in the Colonial Hockey League, International Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and American Hockey League. Horachek's Orlando Solar Bears won the IHL title in 2001.

"He's had head-coaching experience at every level, he's had success at every level," Trotz said. "Having some brief experience with the pressures of head-coaching in the National Hockey League, he did that in Florida for a while, and then obviously being in that fishbowl in Toronto, I think he's very prepared."

Until this year, the Maple Leafs did not let assistant coaches speak to the media, but on at least a handful of occasions from training camp on either Horachek or Spott took Carlyle's place to talk on a given day.

Trotz thinks it might've been a bit overwhelming for Horachek if he went right from a decade in Nashville to the centre of the hockey universe. But the Panthers experience and half a season on staff with the Leafs built up a tolerance to the spotlight.

"I think he has a good grasp of what the demands are there," Trotz said. "He's very good with the media, he's very personable, he tells it like it is. That's what you're going to get with Peter. You get an honest approach. From a media standpoint and from a player standpoint you're going to know where he stands."

That may have been an issue with Carlyle, who had the ability of rubbing players the wrong way. It's impossible to forget Mikhail Grabovski's comments on the way out, and the coach's "OK, just OK" review of James Reimer's play in one game last season in Detroit was emblematic of a strained relationship.

On Tuesday, star winger Phil Kessel didn't sugarcoat that his relationship with Carlyle wasn't always sunshine and roses.

"It was fine," Kessel said. "I think every relationship has its ups and downs. Obviously, I'm not excited to see him go or anything like that. I'm disappointed because it's a reflection on us as a group that we didn't get it done."

Horachek feels a part of that, too, so he's not celebrating taking over for Carlyle.

"Nobody's happy when this happens, when a coach gets removed it's a part of our fraternity," Horachek said. "I'm not happy about it. Though it's given me an opportunity, it's still not a happy day for everybody."

Being in charge for just two practices before the Leafs took the ice against the Capitals, Horachek knew he couldn't make sweeping changes right away. He could have, actually, but his years in hockey taught him not to try.

"As we go forward, there may be things that we may talk about changing," Horachek said. "If you go in the first day and make it all about change, that's what you're going to get: a little bit of a confusion, a little bit of an unfocused attitude. We want to make sure we're focused, we're ready to play."

This summer, president Brendan Shanahan and the Leafs could have a laundry list of experienced coaches to choose from, including Mike Babcock, Dan Bylsma, Pete DeBoer and perhaps Todd McLellan. The long term is on the minds of executives, who watched Wednesday's morning skate with a keen eye, but the immediate future is what Horachek is concerned about.

"We've got half a season and we have to make sure we're going to do something positive with that," he said.

Because of that, Horachek insists he's not worrying about being the long-term, full-time coach of the Leafs. Last year he took over for Dineen and was let go in favour of Gerard Gallant, so Horachek knows the deal.

"I'm not worried about what they're going to do or what they're going to say," Horachek said. "When it's time if they feel like it's warranted, they're going to come to me and say, 'OK that's what's happening.' Until that time I can only worry about worrying about preparing players, making sure they're feeling that they're in the best light and the best opportunities to play their best game."

Notes — When naming Horachek interim coach, the Leafs also announced manager of player development Steve Staios would go behind the bench. Staois's title is not changing but he was in that spot against the Capitals. ... Forward Carter Ashton cleared waivers at noon Wednesday and was assigned to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. ... Horachek's second game as Leafs coach is Friday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

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