Philadelphia years helped shape Rick Tocchet’s approach

Oct 29, 2017, 12:06 PM | Updated: Oct 30, 2017, 11:59 am
Arizona Coyotes' head coach Rick Tocchet, center, gives instruction to players during the first per...
Arizona Coyotes' head coach Rick Tocchet, center, gives instruction to players during the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017 in Calgary, Alberta. (John McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)
(John McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

PHILADELPHIA — Rick Tocchet admires the Philadelphia Flyers organization for fostering a family-like atmosphere. Maybe that’s why the son of Italian immigrants took so easily to Philly. His mom and dad let him break stuff in the basement; the third edition of the Broad Street Bullies let him break people on the ice.

“The way I played the game, it was a perfect fit with that organization,” said Tocchet, who played almost 10 seasons with the Flyers, recording 232 goals, 508 points and 1,817 penalty minutes in 621 games. “When I went in there I was 19 years old and I had never been on my own before and they took me under their wing and made me part of this institution. There was a way we played, a way we acted. Those teams were some of the closest teams I’ve ever been on and I think it has something to do with the way that organization operates.”

It won’t be the first time Tocchet returns to Philadelphia when the Coyotes play the Flyers on Monday at Wells Fargo Center, but going back to the city where he started and finished his playing career is always special.

“I got booed a lot in Pittsburgh so going to Pittsburgh as an assistant coach was kind of like going to the anti-Christ,” Tocchet said. “It won’t be as bad being with Arizona because that other rivalry is intense but I always love going back because I still have great friends. I’m a big fan of that city.”

Tocchet grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, outside Toronto, with what former Flyers teammate Dave Poulin calls a “loving Italian family.”

“The door was always open to friends with food and wine around,” Tocchet said. “It was the same thing in Philadelphia, the way that the city embraces you.”

Tocchet always had talent. He scored 44 goals and totaled 108 points in his final season of juniors with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, but scouts saw that square frame and jaw and those 209 penalty minutes and thought tough guy more than scorer.

“I worked on my game,” Tocchet said. “I didn’t just want to be a guy that chipped the puck in and ran guys and got in fights. I shot a lot of pucks in the summer. My dad built a shooting gallery in the basement and I would literally shoot 500, 600 pucks a day into this old parachute he found.”

Tocchet’s aim wasn’t always on point.

“Sometimes I missed,” he said, laughing. “I wrecked his basement. That’s what I loved about my dad. He would never get mad at me. I would break glass and I was expecting him to yell at me and he would just go fix the glass. If I damaged some ottoman or a chest, he would just fix it.”

The first time Poulin heard Tocchet’s name was in a conversation with Hall-of-Famer Bobby Clarke during the 1983-84 season, Clarke’s last as a player with the Flyers.

“Clarky was essentially in management by that time, even though he was still playing,” Poulin said, laughing. “We had just traded Paul Holmgren to Minnesota that year and he was probably our most physical forechecker. We were talking about who would replace that and Clarky tells me about this kid we drafted in the sixth round out of Sault who would probably be able to play for us right away.”

Philadelphia had been eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past three years and change was in the air. The Flyers hired iron-fisted coach Mike Keenan and Tocchet joined the team with great expectations.

“Toc had a really good camp,” said Poulin, who roomed with Tocchet.  “He was just as advertised physical, abrasive, involved and challenging from Day 1.”

“We were split into four teams and we connected right away. We had some really healthy, long conversations that probably helped pull some stuff out of him. I think he knew what he wanted but sometimes, putting it together and expressing it was tough for him.”

The Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in Tocchet’s first season where they lost to the Wayne-Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers. In Tocchet’s first six seasons, Philadelphia went to three conference finals and two Cup finals.

After two seasons of filling Holmgren’s role, Tocchet’s ambitions grew.

“Keenan would put us against the top line sometimes — myself, Rich and Ronny Sutter,” Tocchet said. “Year 3 was when I said ‘I want more.’ That’s when I tried to give my game more of an offensive side to it, shooting pucks, and I took power skating with a figure skater.

“Mike was tough but I don’t think Mike was trying to make me something I didn’t want to be. He brought me to the Canada Cup so he saw a way I could help the team offensively, too. I really love that he got me on that team.”

Keenan challenged Tocchet.

“Keenan was a rookie coach and Toc was one of those guys he knew could handle the challenge, literally every day,” Poulin said.

Former Flyers teammate Jeff Chychrun, the father of Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun, believes those challenges further hardened an already strong-willed man.

“Rick has always been a very personable guy, but he was very intense when he played,” Chychrun said. “That was very veteran club he joined with some big personalities influencing him. He was given a leadership role very early with that group and I’m sure he carries that with him today.”

Tocchet’s return to Philadelphia won’t be a triumphant one this time around. The Coyotes are 0-10-1 in his first year as coach, tying the longest losing streak to start a season in NHL history. While he’s certain that fact eats at Tocchet, Chychrun is also certain the Coyotes coach is equipped to handle it.

“If anyone can put on their hardhat in hard times and let them roll right past him, it’s Rick,” Chychrun said.

Tocchet’s approach will be the same one he learned in that battered basement in Scarborough, Ontario, and in the locker room and on the ice at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia.

“When you’re in this league, as a coach or a player, sometimes things aren’t going to go your way,” Tocchet said. “So what’s the first thing you do? Do you jump ship or grab a pale? I’m going to grab a pale. I’ve always been that player or that coach. We’re losing so people are going to take pot shots at you but I’m not going to venture from who I am.”

Coyotes at Flyers

When: 4 p.m., Monday
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
TV: FOX Sports Arizona
Radio: ESPN 620 AM
Records: Coyotes — 0-10-1. Flyers — 6-5-0.

Injury report: Coyotes — D Jakob Chychrun (knee) is out indefinitely. D Oliver Ekman-Larsson (head) and G Antti Raanta (lower body) are day-to-day. Flyers — F Nolan Patrick (head) and D Shayne Gostisbehere (upper body) are day-to-day. D Andrew MacDonald (lower body) is out indefinitely.

Coyotes scouting report: The Coyotes recalled G Hunter Miska from Tucson (AHL) on Sunday, and placed place G Antti Raanta on injured reserve, retroactive to his injury date (Oct. 12) which allows him to return at any point. He has not ruled been out for tonight’s game. … Arizona waived G Louis Domingue on Sunday. He was 0-6 with a 4.33 goals against average and an .856 save percentage in seven games. … F Clayton Keller is on a five-game point streak with five goals and eight points.

Flyers scouting report: Bellweather forwards Jakub Voracek (16 points) and Claude Giroux (12 points) are off to strong starts and so is Phoenix product Sean Couturier (13 points) … The Flyers are averaging 3.45 goals per game, seventh best in the NHL, and allowing 2.82, 11th best … The Flyers recalled D Samuel Morin from their AHL affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, on Sunday.

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Philadelphia years helped shape Rick Tocchet’s approach