Monday, June 17, 2024

How Travis Green aims to turn around negativity and pressure around Senators

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OTTAWA — As Steve Staios and Travis Green sat next to each other at a news conference table on Wednesday afternoon, a cold rainstorm was pounding the side of the Canadian Tire Centre. 

The dreary weather seemed to be the perfect metaphor for the dark cloud of negativity that hovered over some Ottawa fans in the wake of Green’s hiring as head coach earlier this week. Their contention is that Green — who sports a career .478 points percentage as an NHL head coach — is not the right fit to elevate a stagnant Senators program to the next level. 


Senators name Travis Green head coach

Green’s detractors wanted a more established head coach with a winning pedigree to be inserted behind the bench in Ottawa. 

A Stanley Cup champion like Craig Berube. 

A perennial winner such as Todd McLellan, who has been to the playoffs nine times. 

Or even someone with a career points percentage of .639 in the NHL like Dean Evason. 

So on Wednesday, Staios was asked why he passed over some of these candidates with more impressive resumes in favour of Green. 

“As we look at the Stanley Cup playoffs right now, you could look at a handful of coaches that are contending for Stanley Cups now that were in the exact same position as Travis was after their first coaching stint,” said Staios. “It’s a lot deeper than looking at just win-loss records.”

Staios’ comment certainly rings true when analyzing some of those coaches still alive in the playoffs. Peter DeBoer never made the playoffs and had a .492 points percentage in three seasons with Florida to start his coaching career. In his first stint with Hartford and Carolina, Paul Maurice only posted a .482 points percentage. 

But Staios could have easily mentioned Rick Tocchet as the best comparable for Green. 

When Tocchet was hired by Vancouver last year, he arrived with a career .475 points percentage after stints in Tampa Bay and Arizona. The market in Vancouver was so hostile about his hiring that Rogers Arena was cascading with boos when Tocchet was introduced during his home debut. Tocchet deleted his X account and there was so much pushback to his hiring that The Athletic’s Penguins beat writer Josh Yohe pleaded for Vancouver fans to simply give Tocchet a fair shake

Fast forward to Wednesday and Tocchet was basking in accolades that have made him the favourite to capture the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach in 2023-24. His Canucks were getting set to host a second-round playoff game at home at Rogers Arena, with a backdrop of 15-degree and sunny weather in Vancouver. 

The contrast between the scenes in Ottawa and Vancouver on Wednesday could not be more markedly different. Sunshine and optimism in one corner; dark clouds and negativity in the other. 

As Green steps into his new role in Ottawa, he’s acutely aware that he’s walking into an emotional marketplace that is openly displaying scars and bruises from not making the playoffs since 2017. 

“It’s a passionate city. They want a winner. And I’m the exact same way,” said Green. “I think it’s a privilege to coach in Canada and play in Canada. There is something to be said for winning in Canada. There is pressure and I like that.”

However, for the Senators to become the Canucks 2.0 a lot of things have to go right. Not the least of which is cleaning up a sloppy defensive zone that has constantly been a source of problems in Ottawa over the past seven seasons. Green believes that getting his core of supremely talented offensive players to play a more responsible, 200-foot game is his top priority. 

“Young skilled players, getting them to grasp the commitment level to play in their zone, for me, that’s number one. If you want to defend well, you got to be committed to defending well,” said Green. “There’s obviously technique, structure and detail that are taught, but a lot of it is the mindset. if you want to win, you have to play a 200-foot game and you have to care about defending. That’s the first step for me.”

Green has the reputation of being a no-nonsense, demanding coach. 

His training camps are notoriously gruelling, leaving players physically and mentally exhausted. In the Canucks training camp in September 2021, Green’s infamous conditioning skate left Olli Juolevi collapsed on the ice in exhaustion. Winger Conor Garland vomited on the ice — which is the same fate that befell defenceman Troy Stecher at the tail end of one of Green’s training camp sessions in 2018. 

But Green concedes he’s evolved as a head coach over the past seven seasons. On Wednesday, he wanted to balance that hard-nosed reputation with the notion that he’s a genuinely caring head coach who is sensitive to the pressures and challenges faced by modern NHL players. 

At one point during his news conference, Green even expressed the importance of “showing empathy when you need it.”

“I’m a firm coach, detailed coach. I can be demanding, but I’m also very approachable,” Green said. “I don’t look at myself as a tough coach. Being a demanding coach isn’t always yelling at a player or sitting out a player. Sometimes, you have to give them confidence when they’re feeling down.”

Senators owner Michael Andlauer — who stood in the back of the room while Staios and Green were seated on the dais — said Green’s flexible personality and willingness to communicate played a role in the organization’s decision to hire him. 

“Travis fits the mold of the culture that we’re trying to create here,” Andlauer told a small gathering of reporters afterward. “I keep reiterating, we’re in the people business.”

Andlauer stated unequivocally that Green’s hiring was, “Steve’s choice. I did not hire him. Steve hired him.”

That process for Staios started shortly after he relieved D.J. Smith of his duties on Dec. 18. In total, Staios said he narrowed down a larger field to roughly six serious candidates as the process drew to its conclusion. 

“It became clear to us, the more we went through this, that Travis definitely was our guy,” said Staios. 

This is quite a remarkable turn of events, considering that less than three weeks ago — on April 18 — Green stood in front of reporters in Newark, wearing a black Devils windbreaker and sounding eager for a chance to return to New Jersey. 

“I want to be the head coach of the New Jersey Devils,” said Green that day. “And we’ll see where that goes.”

On Wednesday, Green was asked how the process played out, resulting in the sharp U-turn that led him from Newark to Ottawa. He only ended up serving 21 games as New Jersey’s interim head coach following the midseason replacement of Lindy Ruff. 

“I was going through the process with New Jersey and I should thank Tom Fitzgerald for allowing me to go outside the organization to interview with other teams,” said Green. “I received a call from Tom that Steve wanted to interview me. And really, it just took off from there.”

Since this deal came together relatively quickly, Green says he has not settled on his bench staff for next season. His plan is to start a search for candidates to join him as assistant coaches in the weeks ahead. 

“I want to make sure we do a thorough job in that,” Green says. 

One name that Green seems open to bringing back is Daniel Alfredsson, who served as an assistant coach under Jacques Martin for the final 56 games of the regular season. Alfredsson and Green exchanged text messages on Tuesday and the new head coach wants to allow Ottawa’s Hall of Famer to choose a role that suits him best. 

“You’re talking about a legend. I really look forward to speaking with Daniel to get his thoughts and ideas. Where he wants to go, if he wants to be a coach full time,” said Green. “I’m open to everything he wants to do.”

That Green now speaks with a deferential tone about Alfredsson was arguably the most shocking aspect of Wednesday’s session. During the height of their heated rivalry on the ice, Green’s language around the longtime Senators captain was not nearly as complimentary. 

After Alfredsson’s controversial hit on Darcy Tucker in the dying moments of Game 5 of their 2002 playoff series, Green told reporters that Alfredsson’s hit on Tucker was “a bloody joke.

As he was flying to Ottawa on Tuesday evening, Green says eight different people texted him this video clip of his involvement in an infamous 2003 Senators-Maple Leafs brawl. In that sequence Tucker jumped into the Ottawa bench to fight Chris Neil, igniting a brawl that resulted in a five-game suspension for Tucker. 

On Wednesday, Green toured his new home at Canadian Tire Centre and relished the irony that he’ll now serve as the Senators head coach — just a few feet away from where tensions boiled over 21 years ago. 

“I stood on the bench today and remember almost being on the bench that night,” Green said with a laugh about the 2003 incident.

In a unique twist, Green says Neil was the first person he ran into when he stepped inside the arena on Wednesday. Moments later, Chris Phillips walked his way. The former Senators players greeted Green with outward warmth and friendliness. That bitter rivalry has been shelved — their animosity toward Green evaporating with time. 

As for current Ottawa fans, however, they might require a little more time to warm to the idea of Green as their new head coach. Their wounds of cheering for a struggling franchise are still quite fresh and the only healing ointment might be a winning product on the ice. 

“I know how badly the people in Ottawa want to win. And I’m going to give everything I can to push this team. To make this team into a winning team. a team they can be proud of,” Green said. “I want to win a Stanley Cup and I’m going to push this team to get to this place.”

(Photo of Steve Staios and Travis Green: Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press via AP)

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