So, how did new Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay spend this past holiday weekend? Well, taking advantage of the beautiful weather that was experienced here in Atlanta, he and his wife checked out some of the sights in Buckhead and did a little shopping. Being out and about in the fair climes of the south is something Ramsay says he could get used to.
“I spent 22 years in Buffalo and was asked if I would ever leave”, he told me. “I said ‘yeah if they ever put a team in Florida’. So I’ve been with both teams in Florida and now Atlanta”.
Of course, the weather down here wasn’t the only thing about Atlanta that coach Ramsay had heard of, “The traffic has been found to be everything it was proposed to be”.
However, his commute to the Duluth Ice Forum has been nothing but a pleasure, he insists. The coach says that’s because he truly is enjoying the people he is working with. He and general manager Rick Dudley and team president Don Waddell have known each other for years and Ramsay really is looking forward to building something special here in Thrasherville.
”Don is a great worker, student of the game and he’s going to be an invaluable tool for me and the coaching staff”.
He added that he knows what Rick Dudley expects from this team given that they went through the same “changing of the culture” experience while in Tampa. There, the two taught a Lightning team how to play and how to win at the NHL level. Because of it, their names were etched in the Stanley Cup in 2004.
When discussing what it takes to create a winning environment, the coach said, “If you’re going to be successful you have to have good people in the organization and everybody has to be in this together and they have to understand that they’re part of something”.
He added that the presence of those necessary ingredients is what helped him to make the decision to head south and coach the Thrashers. “They’ve got good people here and that’s what really made it fun to come in”.
Joining Ramsay behind the bench are two other coaches that he’s excited to work with, John Torchetti and Mike Stothers. I asked Ramsay about sharing coaching duties with a man like Torchetti, whom many felt just as qualified to be head coach himself. Among other things, he plans on using him to help address the team’s biggest shortcoming throughout the years…defense.
“[Torchetti] will run the defense during the game and he’ll be overseeing the power play. I’ve generally done the defense with every team I’ve been with, but he will run that during the game”.
When coaching in Boston, Ramsay admitted that they felt comfortable exposing the Thrashers’ Achilles heal saying, “We thought we could take advantage of Atlanta in their own end, but I think we will turn that around…that will be a priority for us”.
But he doesn’t merely want to improve the play on defense… he actually feels it has the potential to become an asset.
“We want to change that attitude, that’s for sure. I think looking at this [team] that our defense could be our strength. That’s what we did in Tampa when we won the Cup. In Boston we were very strong on the blueline. Rick understands that value…and we’ve got good people here and we think they can make this defense work and it can be turned to our advantage”.
“We believe strongly that we have to be good at getting the puck out. Boston became probably one of the best breakout team that I’ve had, probably better than Tampa was, because we did a good job as a team. I have every confidence that we can make our team good in our end. And once you’ve established that, you can break out quickly and strongly and now you can start playing an up-ice and up-tempo game that I feel we can play”.
Ramsay and Torch have also been discussing the team’s power play. The key to success here, he says, is to just keep it simple and get the job done.
“I think our power play can be very effective. I think we have some people that can make it work. John’s got some good ideas on the power play and simplicity is something we’ve talked about already…and that’s something I couldn’t agree with more. We want to start off by getting to the point and shooting it. We’ve got a couple of people who can shoot it. And that’s going to help us get some net presence”.
“I think our power play is going to be [run] simple. We’ll make some tweaks to it but generally we want to make sure we’re not trying to do too much. Just go out and get it done”.
Mike Stothers will start the year off upstairs, maybe coming down for the third period.
And coach Ramsay certainly does not feel threatened at all by having such quality people coaching from his bench. In fact, he rather prefers it that way.
“Part of a head coaches job is to train your successors. These guys [assistant coaches], I want them to be down there working with me. I know for a fact I can work with both of them. So together I think we’re going to have a real good, tight group that works solidly together”.
Of the players he and his staff will coach, Ramsay says he likes the way the roster is taking shape. He is especially excited about the Chicago connection that made their way here along with Torchetti. He’s looking forward to using them them, and veterans like newly acquired Freddie Modin whom he coached in Tampa, to help teach the winning ways of hockey to the other players.
But even those with a few years experience under their belts can still continue in the learning process.
“We’ve got kids coming in from all over the place who have not been together, and I’m going to put in a style of play that’s fun so they can use their enthusiasm to participate with. However, even veteran players have to learn things…they haveto change their games. When you look at a Dave Andreychukand how he came in as strictly an offensive player, but by the time we finished in Tampa Bay he did everything for us…including killing penalties for us”.
For Ramsay, it’s the fine details that can be taught to these players that can make a big difference.
“I’ve always felt my job is not just to tell them to go out and play but to make sure they understand the small subtle differences that separate really good players from just another player…things that will allow them to maximize their talent. But those details make a vital difference”.
“When I talked to Freddie Modin in Tampa about looking big killing penalties, he and the others looked like I had two heads. Well, how do you look big? You can do things with your feet, legs and your body that make you look bigger and scare others from even shooting. Also, you have to be willing to block shots”.
“And if you are willing to go out there and do that, then others will be willing as well”.
Ramsay explains that it’s one thing to try and implement a game plan, but when players have been taught how to cope when “Plan A” goes south then you have a smarter more effective team. This is a lesson that remained with him from his early days from those who taught him the sport.
“I was very lucky growing up. I only played for two coaches until I turned pro. They taught me to look at the game, read the game and try to understand the game. Once you do that, then you can adjust to whatever you have on the ice. If you’re just told to go here or go there then when it breaks down…and in hockey, it does…well, then you have players asking ‘Now what do you do? You didn’t tell us about that’”.
Ramsay he wants to “hopefully make them the smartest team in hockey. And that’s what I consider my ‘job’. They’ll be better players, we’ll be a better team…and that’s what I think teaching is all about”.
Smarter players, he insists, also give him the confidence to place less emphasis on line matchups and more on skating out his best players on his terms.
“We like matchups…we understand the value of matchups…but we’ve also discussed the downside of matchups. You can get so carried away with having you’re ‘matchups’ that you forget to play your players. And have seen that, where at times some of the best players don’t get on the ice because a coach is too worried about his matchups”.
Continuing, “Once you’re on the road, you can’t always have your matchups. So we won’t get so carried away with that that we won’t get our players out on the ice”.
And so, coach Ramsay and his staff will seek to teach the Thrashers’ players how to play the game and instill in them a winning attitude. But Thrasherville’s newest head coach expects his students to participate not only during lesson time, but during the game as well. And not just on one side of the ice…but all sides.
“We want to have at least two sets of defense that can play against anybody. We want to have at least two lines that we can use in situations when we need them…and we expect all of our players to participate on both ends of the rink”.
Give the history in Thrasherville, that’s a lesson we can only hope that everyone on the team takes to heart.