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Coyotes hire former player, assistant Rick Tocchet as head coach

Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet stands behind Sidney Crosby (87) and Phil Kessel (81) on the bench in the third period of a 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, March 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

LISTEN: Rick Tocchet, Coyotes head coach

The Coyotes selected a familiar face to replace Dave Tippett as the organization’s next coach, hiring Pittsburgh Penguins assistant and former Arizona player and assistant coach Rick Tocchet on Tuesday. Tocchet agreed to a four-year contract.

Tocchet, 53, has been an assistant with the Penguins for the past three seasons and has two years of head coaching experience with the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he went 53-69-26 from 2008-10. He becomes the organization’s sixth all-time coach since moving to Arizona in 1996.

“Everyone has got a resume, everyone has got a past and you can talk to people and collect information and that’s what we did, but he came in and he was the best candidate by a wide margin,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. “He’s a got a real leadership presence. He walks in a room and he owns the room. He demands the highest degree of excellence. At the same time, I think he has created a niche for himself as being a kind of communicator; being someone the players can rely on and talk to, not only about hockey but outside of hockey.”

Chayka said he talked to more than 25 coaches and interviewed closer to five in person, but Tocchet wowed him with his preparedness, his wide-ranging communication skills and a video demonstration that illuminated Tocchet’s ability to move beyond the buzz words of ‘playing fast’ and ‘playing with the puck’ into concrete examples of how he intended to do so.

“There’s different ways to play fast,” Tocchet said. “I don’t want to take the stick out of guys’ hands. We have some creative young players here so I want them to be creative. I want them not to think too much. I want them to play.

“You have to give players freedom, especially in today’s NHL, to play, but I’m not going to sell the farm. It’s not going to be 3-on-1s all night. You have to be calculated.”

Other candidates in whom the Coyotes were reported to have interest were Grand Rapids (AHL) coach Todd Nelson; San Diego Gulls (AHL) coach Dallas Eakins; Toronto Marlies (AHL) coach Sheldon Keefe; and Southampton Football Club chairman Ralph Krueger, who coached the Edmonton Oilers in 2012-13 and coached underdog Team Europe to a silver medal at the World Cup of Hockey last fall.

Tocchet played 1,144 games in the NHL from the 1984-85 until 2001-02, scoring 440 goals and amassing 952 points. He played parts of three seasons for the Coyotes, scoring 64 goals and totaling 130 points in 213 games from 1997-2000. The Coyotes made the playoffs all three seasons.

He was coach of the Lightning for two seasons, starting in 2008, after Barry Melrose was fired after just 16 games. The Lightning missed the playoffs both seasons.

Tocchet’s coaching career began as an assistant for the Colorado Avalanche in 2002–03. In the summer of 2005, he served as an assistant coach with the Coyotes. On Dec. 17, 2005, he took over as interim head coach for Phoenix, stepping in while head coach Wayne Gretzky was out on an indefinite leave of absence due to his mother’s illness (and subsequent death).

In February 2006, Tocchet was charged with promoting gambling and conspiracy to promote gambling. In 2007, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation, but the worst concerns of his involvement were not substantiated, with no apparent mob ties or proof that Tocchet bet on hockey.

Tocchet took a leave of absence during the legal proceedings, but he was back behind the bench in 2008 before joining Tampa Bay’s staff later that year as an assistant. In 2014, the Penguins hired him as an assistant and he has been with the organization for the past three seasons, helping Pittsburgh win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

“I’m sure everyone recalls the manner in which the case was initially announced and described,” Tocchet’s defense attorney, Kevin Marino, said at the time of the court ruling. “I think today’s proceeding speaks for itself.”

Chayka said the gambling plea was a topic of discussions before the hiring, but the elapsed time since the incident and Tocchet’s character references dispelled any concerns.

“He’s a man of character and integrity,” Chayka said. “Any issues of the past are in the past. It certainly didn’t raise any red flags for us whatsoever.”

Tocchet said he hasn’t thought much about the plea.

“I’m not going to get into it, but like I said back then, I slept very well at night for what happened,” he said. “The fact of the matter is there’s life lessons and it’s how you deal with them. It’s something I’ve got to teach our players. We’re going to lose some hockey games or you’re going to make mistakes. To me, I want to see how a person reacts from his mistake or his actions on the ice or off ice. To me, that’s high character guys that can do that — that can come back from certain things.”

Tocchet has earned a reputation as a players’ coach and a communicator, two qualities which Coyotes general manager John Chayka cited as prerequisites for his next coach, after Dave Tippett parted ways with the team on the eve of the 2017 NHL Draft.

Former teammates see those qualities in Tocchet.

“He has a strong presence, commands a lot of respect and for me as a young guy who spent a summer working out with him, you have no choice but to follow suit,” said former Coyote Daniel Briere, who was 20 when Tocchett arrived in Arizona as a player. “He’s a natural leader.

“To get down to that level of all those young players with the Coyotes is going to be a challenge, but he’s smart enough and he’s been around a lot of young guys coming up through the ranks in Pittsburgh because of the salary cap crunch the Penguins have had. He’s used to being around a lot of young players and I think he’s learned from that experience how to coach the new-aged player.”

Tocchet said he will not change the type of relationship he forges with players now that he is the head coach instead of an assistant. He wants open lines of communication with his players, and he wants to forge mutual respect.

“I don’t have a blueprint on it,” he said. “It just kind of happens and I think that’s one of my strengths. A guy can come in my office and I can feel the flow of the meeting and how I can get this guy to go a little bit.

“I sat in that guy’s seat before and I think that really helps. I’ve played on the first line, I’ve played on the fourth line, I’ve not dressed. I’ve played a lot of games so I can relate to players and that is something I always want to be as a coach.

“I don’t want to change as a person. I don’t think that because you carry a title ‘head coach’ that all of the sudden you have to be distanced from your player. My style is: this is a partnership.”

Tocchet favors an up-tempo style that could suit the Coyotes stable of young talent.

“I think you can judge him by the way the Penguins played,” said former Coyotes captain Keith Tkachuk of his former teammate. “It’s a different team with different personnel, but the Penguins played a speed game under [coach] Mike Sullivan and I think Rick learned that is the direction now of NHL teams. Time will tell, but I will promise you that team will be ready to play come game time.”

Tkachuk said it is unfair to judge Tocchet on his Tampa experience.

“Everybody is better the second time around because you learn from your mistakes and the things you do right,” Tkachuk said. “I’ve known Tocchet for a long time. He’ll learn from that short stint and be even better this time.”

Tocchet said there is no timeframe on hiring assistants to fill out his staff, but he wants coaches that can relate to younger minds as the Coyotes build around their young core. That young core was one of the principle sources of interest for Tocchet.

“Everybody knows it’s a young squad,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of prospects, a lot of players that were stars as juniors.

“Chicago went through it. Pittsburgh went through it. You’ve got to go through this process to win, but there’s some potential to really grow this into something big.”

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