Todd McLellan has Sharks believing
DETROIT -- Two years ago around this time, Doug Wilson began an exhaustive coaching search that would have made Fortune 500 companies jealous.
The San Jose Sharks GM dug deep into his array of contacts around the hockey world, probed people he trusted within the industry and left no stone unturned as he tried to find the right man to lead his talented squad to the promised land.
He interviewed 21 candidates, and the 21st and final interview was Todd McLellan.
It wasn't so much by design as it was by necessity. McLellan was a little preoccupied with helping coach Mike Babcock and the Detroit Red Wings capture another Stanley Cup. Wilson had reached out to Detroit GM Ken Holland during the playoffs and asked for permission to interview the Wings assistant coach once their season was over.
McLellan didn't wait very long after the champagne dried in his hair to reach out to Wilson.
"He called me immediately the next morning [after the Wings beat the Penguins in Game 6]," Wilson told ESPN.com on Wednesday.
And who can blame him. McLellan believed he was ready. He paid his dues. The Western Hockey League's Coach of the Year in 2000, McLellan led the Houston Aeros to the AHL's Calder Cup title in 2003 before his apprenticeship in Detroit.
Red Wings University is never a bad place to upgrade your skills.
"It's like leaving high school and going to college. I got to go to Harvard," McLellan told ESPN.com during a sit-down interview Wednesday. "The people around here, the tradition that exists, you'd walk into the coaches' office after a game and it's like the Hall of Fame, but they're all there in person. To hear Scotty Bowman talk about his past, Stevie [Yzerman], Pat Verbeek, Mr. Howe, Mr. Lindsay, Mr. Delvecchio -- they're all around all the time. You can't help but listen and learn. I was real fortunate that way."
Wilson and McLellan had never met before they sat down for the interview in early June 2008. By then, the Sharks GM had spoken to 20 other candidates. It didn't matter. Wilson was sold right then and there.
"I sat down and met with him and that was it," recalled Wilson. "I thought, 'Here's the guy.' ... He was real. There was no B.S. He looked at you right in the eye. He was clear and concise in his message."
Fast forward about 10 months. It's April, and the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sharks were already done, ousted in six games by the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks. The early exit may have made some GMs second-guess their decision to hire a rookie NHL coach, but not Wilson. His confidence in McLellan never wavered despite the first-round disappointment. He knew his coach would use that adversity to better his team.
"It's not what happens to you in life, it's what you do with what happens to you, and that's the type of people you want to be around," Wilson said. "It didn't surprise me, but when we did our end-of-the-year reviews, the first thing he said is, 'These are things I can do better.' Which you really admire. There was no wavering. He is our coach, and he'll be our coach for a long time."
McLellan then faced one of the toughest moments in his hockey life, meeting with Patrick Marleau and informing the forward he would no longer be captain.
"But it wasn't as difficult to do as some might think, because of our relationship," said the 42-year-old McLellan, who goes way back with Marleau to their Saskatchewan roots. "We have a very strong relationship. It goes beyond our Shark days, so I feel real comfortable sitting and talking to Patty heart to heart. We had one of those over the summer.
"It's one of those moments I'll never forget to this point in my NHL career. We sat and we looked at each other and we talked about what was going to happen moving forward. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't as difficult as the outside world might think."
Marleau could hardly say it was unfair. McLellan had come in a year earlier and resisted pressure from the outside world to immediately remove the captaincy. But given the first-round loss to Anaheim, changes had to be made. Rob Blake was made captain, Marleau seemed lifted of a burden and had a great season, and the Sharks moved on with their business.
The captaincy episode helped underline McLellan's dexterity in handling his players.
"I don't think I've ever had a coach that's treated players so fairly," Sharks blueliner Douglas Murray said Wednesday. "He demands a lot, but he treats everyone with respect."
"More than anything, Todd treats you like a human being and he cares about the guys," said Sharks winger Ryane Clowe, who, like Murray, has blossomed since McLellan arrived. "He's an intense guy. That doesn't mean he's always screaming and yelling, but when he speaks, he's assertive and guys listen. And first of all, Todd knows the game really well. There's no stone unturned. He knows what's going on, he always has a game plan. Guys just respect him."
McLellan and his coaching staff (Jay Woodcroft, Trent Yawney and Matt Shaw) have their team one win away from the franchise's first conference finals appearance in six years. McLellan would not be caught dead looking ahead; he's got far too much respect for his old team in Detroit to do that. Still, he did allow himself to examine the journey some of his players have already taken so far in these playoffs.
"I equate it to being like a father or a teacher, when you see the classroom or your kids have some success or put into place some of the lessons you've tried to teach them. It's rewarding," McLellan said. "It's rewarding to this point to see some of our players overcome maybe their past or their past reputations. That's been a real good thing. But it's hard to talk about it at this point because this series is far from over, and quite frankly, we don't consider ourselves successful at this point. We've got lots of work left to do."
These playoffs didn't start out smoothly. The Sharks dropped their opener to eighth-seeded Colorado and then went down 2-1 in the series on Dan Boyle's own-goal in overtime. That's when everything changed.
"That was the moment we had to overcome," McLellan said. "It would have been easy to say, `This just isn't our year, it's not going to happen for us.' That was a stepping stone for us. And you have those moments."
McLellan just kept reminding his players they were doing the right things and would eventually have the breaks go their way. "To me, leadership is calm in the eye of the storm," Wilson said.
The Sharks were outplaying the Avs despite being behind 2-1. What shone through for them in the three ensuing victories was the base of it all -- a system and game plan the players truly believe in, one that is now instinctual even when times are tough.
"Those are the things that you look at: Does your system and your team break down under stress or fatigue?" said Wilson. "It's something that this coaching staff in particular has really ingrained in our players. 'This is how we play and this is what you need to do. Your talent will take over after you've got those things covered off.' It's been good to watch and see the process."
A process the Sharks hope is far from over.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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