Saturday, December 23, 2006

Hugs-a-Lot Bear

I'm on a bit of a Caps-win-and-cold-medicine-induced high, so I figured I'd truck on over to the HLOG and introduce you all to the coach of the Washington Capitals, Glen Hanlon.

Dubbed "Hugs" by fans here in DC for his gentle approach and guiding hand, Hanlon is possibly the best thing that could have happened to this Caps team. Hanlon coached the Portland Pirates for three years before joining the Caps behind the bench as assistant coach to Bruce "Butch" Cassidy in 2002. After a season and a quarter of Cassidy's antics he was thankfully removed and Hanlon took over as bench boss.

The poor guy was given the unenviable task of coaching Jaromir Jagr and a roster of overpaid and underachieving players before watching the team be dismantled in a pre-lockout fire sale. He was left with a skeleton of his former team and the promise of a relatively unknown Russian superstar as the league headed into a year of uncertainty.

The Caps returned from the lockout in full rebuilding mode with Hanlon at the helm for his first full year. It was a group of young, mostly unknown players and one rookie sensation, with a few veterans sprinkled throughout. They weren't supposed to accomplish anything; many even predicted their record would rival that of the inaugural Caps team - an illustrious 8-67-5 in that first season. (Yup, that's a rich hockey heritage we've got here in the District...)

But Hanlon demanded hard work from his players and stressed the importance of team chemistry, a combination that soon made the Caps a very tough club to play against. Their never-say-die attitude when a game was seemingly out of reach endeared them to fans and other teams alike, and they could often punish the team that took them lightly. Although they finished the season at the bottom of the league, many NHL insiders praised the Caps and Hanlon for what they had accomplished.

So another year, another offseason of critics saying the Caps were going nowhere - yet here we are almost halfway through the season and the scrappy Caps are right in the middle of the fight.

And it's not hard to see why - Hanlon's style of coaching has been the perfect fit as he helps guide this young team to their best start in years. He is a big part of Ovechkin's continued evolution as a complete hockey player and is a key reason why so many players are showing more confidence in their game. While the emphasis in the locker room is now on winning, Hanlon continues to teach at every opportunity - he uses the timeout more than any coach I've ever seen and has an affinity for the wipeboard that is often the target of many a good-natured joke.

Glen is usually soft-spoken with the media, praising his players individually when they deserve it and acting like a proud papa when the team comes together. When the performance is bad, it's not anger but rather disappointment on Hanlon's face. He won't single out an individual player on a bad night or call out someone for not adhering to the system. Like a parent he knows what this team is capable of and is visibly upset when they fail to live up to their potential.

He also is not afraid to stand up to anyone pushing his boys around. Hanlon became infamous following that well-known brawl against Atlanta last month, not only for using his enforcers to send a message but also for flapping his arms like a chicken at Atlanta coach Bob Hartley and having a shouting match with him in the hall after the game. His antics cost him $30,000 in fines but won him the respect of every single Caps fan.

In my opinion, Hanlon is one of the classiest coaches around because of his obvious love for this team and everyone on it. When he talks about a solid team win you can see the emotion and pride in what his young squad has accomplished, and he has a real desire to make the Capitals a contender for years to come.

Many have speculated that the performance of the Caps so far even makes Hanlon a potential candidate for Coach of the Year. While he may have to wrestle that one away from Lindy Ruff in Buffalo or Randy Carlyle in Anaheim, I think you'll find many people here in DC who would nominate him in a second.

1 comment:

Heather B. said...

Hanlon won a lot of fans in Buffalo when he said he understood exactly why everyone was upset about the Ovechkin hit and if roles had been reversed he would've expected his players and fans to react the same way. So he's good in my book :-)

I'd have no problem with him winning Coach of the Year based on results so far. I think it takes a special coach to put a young, inexperienced team on the right path and he seems to be doing that.