Rick Tocchet: Working with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Phil Kessel prepared me to coach Coyotes

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

On July 11, Rick Tocchet's long and sometimes painful wait to become an NHL head coach ended when he was hired by the Arizona Coyotes, a dysfunctional franchise that former head coach Dave Tippett walked away from in June despite having four years remaining on his contract.

In an exclusive conversation with ESPN.com, Tocchet, 53, discussed his previous coaching stops with the Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins; his two-year ban from the NHL for his role in a gambling ring; his relationships with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Sullivan and Phil Kessel; and why he left what he called one of the best jobs in hockey -- assistant coach for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions -- for what many believe might be the most challenging.

ESPN.com: When you retired as a player -- in 2002, at 37 -- did you know you wanted to get into coaching right away?

Tocchet: I didn't know what I was going to do. I was kind of torn because in my head I thought I could have played another year or two, but at that point my body was telling me no. I wanted to take some time off, and after about three or four months I was getting itchy. I'm not a guy who can sit around. I got a phone call from Pierre Lacroix and Tony Granato, [asking me] to come coach in Colorado -- and that's how it started. With the tradition of winning and the talent level they had, it was an easy decision to accept the job.

ESPN.com: How was that experience in Colorado, where you coached from 2003-04?

Tocchet: I loved it. The city of Denver and the state was an incredible place to live. I thought it was one of the best franchises in the league -- not just the players, but the way Pierre Lacroix treated everybody. He ran a first-class operation and he was one of my favorite GMs of all time. We had Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Alex Tanguay, Milan Hejduk, Rob Blake, Patrick Roy. We had an All-Star team, so it was very enjoyable. I ran the power play and did a lot of 5-on-5 stuff with the forwards, similar to what I was just doing in Pittsburgh.

ESPN.com: How did your first coaching opportunity in Phoenix [2005-06] come about?

Tocchet: I was really close with Wayne [Gretzky], and he was finally going to get a kick at the can as a coach. He had the passion to do it. Phoenix went after him hard, and he asked me if I wanted to come along. I said yes. It was during the [2004-05] lockout and that whole season was shot, so I had a lot of time to think about it. I had played in Phoenix, I liked the area and I always said I wanted to move back there eventually. And to have a chance to work with Wayne, it made perfect sense for me to come back.

ESPN.com: Gretzky was criticized for being one of those elite athletes whom players couldn't relate to. Was that unfair, in your opinion?

Tocchet: I think it was unfair. Paul Coffey always told me that great players make great coaches and, no offense to the players, but we didn't have the greatest talent level there. My first year with Wayne and [associate coach] Barry Smith, I thought we did a hell of a job. We didn't have the greatest roster and we were .500. We coached our asses off, and I thought Wayne was underrated as a bench coach. I thought he did a terrific job behind the bench in managing players and their ice time, and Barry and I helped him out on the tactical part. It was actually a pretty good thing going. We just didn't have the horses.

ESPN.com: During that time in Phoenix, after you were charged with financing a gambling ring and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to promote gambling, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman banned you for two years from the league. What were those two years like for you?

Tocchet: It was a long period of time. I wanted it rectified [right away], but I knew from talking to my lawyer it would be a long process. I didn't know it would go two years. I had a lot of time to reflect about it. Should I not have bet on football? I don't know. But the bottom line is I made a mistake, I owned up to it, I sat my two years and they let me back in.

At that time, it was tough to swallow, but today I understand. They did their investigation and their due diligence. Knowing that now, I get it. Back then, I was like, 'Two years? I've got to wait that long?' I was upset about it, but whatever my indiscretion was, it wasn't as bad as it was [presented] in the media. But you know what? I could give you a long list of people, like Paul Holmgren and Mario Lemieux and Ed Snider, who supported me during that stuff and that's something I'll never forget. Ed Snider, God rest his soul, was in my corner. He told me he knew it was not going to stop me.

ESPN.com: How did the opportunity to be an assistant in Tampa [in 2008] come about?

Tocchet: I played with [former Lightning owner] Lenny Barrie and knew him from talking over the years. He asked me if I wanted to be part of Barry Melrose's staff. I didn't know what was going to happen in Phoenix, and I thought with myself and Barry and Wes Walz, we could maybe do something in Tampa. It didn't work at first [Melrose was fired and replaced with Tocchet just 16 games into the season], but the experience really helped me [later]. Those two years I was there helped make me a better coach. I thought for the team we had we were doing a hell of a job, but the GM [Brian Lawton] wanted to change one of my assistants and I didn't like that. So there was a little turmoil and it didn't end very well.

ESPN.com: What did you learn most about that experience as a head coach?

Tocchet: I wasn't decisive enough. I let outside influences dictate some of my decisions. I've learned to be more decisive and go with what I believe in. That's something I learned from that experience. You've got to hold firm. If you believe a guy belongs in the lineup, put him in.

You should always gather information, but at the end of the day, the head coach should make the final decision -- similar to what we did in Pittsburgh. I like the way Mike Sullivan coaches. He wants information and he wants you to challenge him. We had many arguments, but at the end of the day, it's his decision and he's very decisive. I'm all on board with that. If you're a head coach and you don't want to be challenged by your assistants, I don't think you're going to be very successful. Your staff has to challenge you every day to think outside the box, whether it's the way you practice, how you travel, lineup changes. They have to challenge you every day to make you a better coach.

ESPN.com: After those two years in Tampa, you were out of the coaching loop for four years before you joined the Penguins' staff [in 2014]. Did Mario Lemieux have a lot to do with that?

Tocchet: I think he did. I played a lot of golf with him during that time and talked a lot about the philosophy of hockey. He said, "Listen, I'd like to get you back in the game. I think you'd be a hell of a coach." Jim Rutherford had just been hired [to replace Ray Shero as general manager] and he called me. We had a couple lunches, Jim liked what he heard and they hired me.

ESPN.com: How would you describe your relationship with Mike Sullivan?

Tocchet: I played with Sully in Phoenix and had him as an assistant coach in Tampa, so when he was hired by the Penguins I knew they were in great hands. He's a very smart guy. I mean, he was out of the game for two or three years after he got fired by the [New York] Rangers in 2013. So when [former Penguins associate GM] Jason Botterill called me and asked if I had anyone I'd recommend for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton [head coach] job [with Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate], I told him I'd hire Mike Sullivan in a second. Jason and [Wilkes-Barre/Scranton GM] Billy Guerin interviewed him -- and the rest is history. Sully did all the work, but I was so confident this guy could be a head coach. He's influenced me on a lot, and I enjoyed coaching with him.

ESPN.com: A lot has been made about your relationship with [Penguins winger] Phil Kessel. Is that an example of the importance of being able to communicate with a player?

Tocchet: I believe you have to have all different personalities in a dressing room. Phil is a different guy, and I enjoyed my time with him. He sees the world differently than some people, and that's fine. We had our long talks. We disagreed on a lot of things and agreed on a lot of things.

But at the end of the day, we found common ground between [Kessel], me and Mike Sullivan -- and the guy did a hell of a job. He scored some big points and big goals for us at key times, and that's why we got him. We knew what we were getting. Phil is not going to be the perfect player, but we knew that at certain times of the game he's going to make that pass or score that goal that elevates our team.

ESPN.com: Now that you're going back to being a head coach for the first time in nine years, are you more prepared than the first time around?

Tocchet: Oh, for sure. I thought I knew everything. Just because you played 18 years in the league doesn't mean you know what you're doing as a head coach. There's a lot to it. The one thing I think I've learned, and the one thing that has helped me over the years, is my communication. That's one of my strengths, communicating with a young player. I can X-and-O's with anybody. I can tell you what Washington does. I can tell you what the Rangers do, and that's great. But I'm more worried about our team. The mental aspect with a player is more than half the battle nowadays. That's why I think communication is so big for a coach in general.

ESPN.com: Are you much of an analytics guy?

Tocchet: I don't believe you can read a book on analytics and go behind the bench and coach that way. There are still feel and eye tests as a coach, but there are trends in analytics that you can use. If your team, after 20 games, is one of the worst at defending the rush, you need to take a look at it and see if teams are more aggressive against you on a 3-on-2. Are your defensemen sliding more? It does make you take a look at other ways to defend.

I'm not a huge analytics guy, but I do like it in certain respects, especially if there is a legitimate sample size. Look at the teams in LA. When the [Los Angeles Kings] won the Stanley Cup [2014], they were No. 1 in hits, right? The next year, the [Chicago] Blackhawks won with the least amount of hits. What does that tell you? Nothing. You can win with a hitting team and you can win with a team that doesn't hit. Look at what we did in Pittsburgh. We won two Cups on speed and our transition.

ESPN.com: The roster you're inheriting in Arizona looks like a lot of unproven promise. What are your thoughts on what lies ahead?

Tocchet: Listen, there are a lot of first-year guys trying to become players. I knew what I was getting into. Obviously, I had questions for ownership, including, "Are we going to get a new arena?"

But I knew what they wanted. They want someone to teach a professional culture to these young kids and make sure they're prepared for what lies ahead. This might not be the greatest analogy, but the Blackhawks went through losing until all those young kids came up and they molded those guys into three-time Stanley Cup champions. The Penguins, same thing. They were in bankruptcy and all of a sudden they hit the lotto and got Sidney Crosby. That obviously fast-tracked it, but the young guys they had there had to grow.

If we can get these kids to grow together and get a new arena so we can really spend some money, I think this could be a premier job in the NHL in a hockey market that's starving for a winner.

ESPN.com: There has been a lot of speculation about the future of hockey in Arizona. What have you been told?

Tocchet: Gary Bettman has gotten involved, and they have some [arena] leads that are very strong, but they've got to [build the new arena] in the Valley. Everybody knows it. And if they get an arena down there, I think we've got a chance to make it a really desirable place to play.

At this point, I don't know where it's at with a new arena, but I do know it's a lot closer than people think. It's not like these guys are trying to hold on and then move the franchise. They really want to keep us in the Valley and make it a viable franchise.

ESPN.com: Do you think if you had not played and coached in Phoenix, you would not have been as interested to be the head coach?

Tocchet: That is a good question. Put it this way, playing there and coaching there and knowing the potential of the area probably helped me get the job. And them giving a four-year commitment to me was big, too, because I had the best assistant coach's job in hockey and to leave that I had to have a lot of boxes checked.

ESPN.com: Let's look at your roster. You've got young guys Max Domi and Dylan Strome and you pick up guys such as Niklas Hjalmarsson, Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta. What is a realistic expectation heading into next season?

Tocchet: I honestly don't know. I'll be very disappointed in myself if I can't get everybody to improve their game -- guys like Max Domi and Christian Dvorak. Can Clayton Keller play in the NHL? I don't know. Can Dylan Strome play in the NHL? I don't know.

I'll tell you what -- I think at the end of the year Oliver Ekman-Larsson will be in the talk as one of the top defensemen in the league, and I'll be very disappointed if he's not. With what guys like Stepan and Hjalmarsson are going to preach to him, I think he's going to take it to another level.

In terms of wins and losses, I don't know. But I think it's important that I can grow these young kids because they want this group to stay together for a lot of years and compete for a lot of years. That's the goal.

ESPN.com: Do you see the potential to do what teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers did last season?

Tocchet: Oh, yeah. What those two teams did with young guys was amazing. But look, it took a lot of losing for a lot of years to get where they are and now they've found some traction. They've got a nucleus of kids that had unbelievable years for them, and there's no reason why I can't say to you next year that all these guys on my team had a really good year. That's why they hired me. The expectations of wins and losses, I don't know. But the expectation of making my players better, I take that very seriously.