Thursday, July 22, 2010

After Briefly Celebrating Championship, French Eager To Repeat Feat

By John Sparenberg jsheynow

It’s been just over a month since the Hershey Bears, under the leadership of bench boss, Mark French, captured the franchise’s 11th Calder Cup Championship; while he was able to briefly rest on his laurels, the Washington Capitals’ recently concluded rookie camp signaled it was time to move ahead and start focusing on going for a three-peat.

“It seems like it’s been the blink of an eye, but it’s been good to enjoy it for a month. The rookie camp is kind of the official opening of the hockey season again for us. All you need is just a little bit of time off and then you’re ready to get it going again.”

With French behind the bench, the Bears have captured back-to-back Calder Cup titles in his two full seasons behind the pine, the first in 2009 as head coach Bob Woods’ assistant and the second in the recently concluded playoffs as the bench boss himself.

For French, whose previous head coaching experience was with the Wichita Thunder of the Central Hockey League, playoff success was not something he was familiar with prior to coming to Central Pennsylvania, as he had never guided the Thunder beyond the first round in two playoff outings.

Entering the 2009-10 season as a rookie head coach in the AHL, French had big shoes to fill trying to follow-up upon Woods successful act, but he thrived upon the pressure.

“Everything’s more highlighted and more intense at this level, and the quality of play is the highest I’ve ever coached at,” he said. “There’s a pressure to win from the organization, and from the fans here, but you find out that’s a really good thing because the organization does an excellent job of providing the players that you need to allow you to win.”

In the past, when faced with the same situation French encountered this season-being an assistant coach with a club one year and then ascending to the head coaching position the next-others have had difficulty making the transition. One of the great challenges of the switch in roles could be the scenario of having to call out a player for sub-par play whom they had to coddle when they were in the assistant’s position; however, thanks to his predecessor, someone who had experience making the same move, French’s transition seemed to be rather seamless.

“No, I don’t think there was (a period of adjustment), but the players might be the ones to ask,” chuckled French. “You do find that the losses probably hit you a lit bit harder when you are the guy making the final decisions, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable moving positions, and I give a lot of credit for that to Bob Woods for giving me so much responsibility when I was his assistant.”

Just as French’s move behind the bench went off rather smoothly, his new assistant, Troy Mann, managed to find comfort quickly behind the Hershey bench, with the two gentlemen rapidly finding a rapport with each other although they had never had a face-to-face meeting prior to the 2009-10 season.

“It’s funny because there wasn’t (an adjustment period),” commented French. “We had talked to each other on the phone before about hockey-related matters, but our paths had never really crossed. You take the recommendations of Bruce (Boudreau) and Bob (Woods) and they both thought that we would have good chemistry together and they were right. It didn’t take long for us to develop a good relationship and I thought he did an outstanding job this season.”

At Washington’s training camp prior to the beginning of the 2009-10 season, French told me, “You find out a lot about yourself in adverse situations. Everybody’s a good coach when things are going well and you have great players, but you truly find out a lot about your character and intestinal fortitude when things don’t go well.”

Those words certainly proved prophetic in the Bears’ Calder Cup matchup with the Texas Stars when the heavily favored Bears trailed the series, 2-0, after dropping a pair of home games at Giant Center where they had been practically invincible all season.

“ I had never seen our dressing room as low as it was after the second game, but it was a different mood the next morning where we met quietly as a group before leaving for Texas,” revealed French. “After that meeting, everything was positive and we were feeling very good about our chances of winning the series.”

After arriving in Texas, French said the players took it upon themselves to have a meeting of their own, with no coaches allowed, and although he did not name the player responsible for organizing the get together or what was said in it, French liked the ensuing results of the gathering.

“I don’t know what was said in that meeting, but I do know who held it, and he was the right person to do it. I believe a lot of the right things were said at that meeting, because there were a lot of things that changed after that point in time.”

In game three in Texas, even with the meetings that came after game two, the Bears found themselves trailing 3-1 midway through the game. At that point, French made what turned out to be a brilliant decision by dropping Alexander Giroux off the top line and onto a line with Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault, and elevating Chris Bourque to Giroux’s spot on the top line with Keith Aucoin and Andrew Gordon.

Those line changes had a dual effect, alleviating some of the pressure from Giroux’s shoulders, and also spreading out the Stars’ defense which had been so effective up until that point of shutting down the top line. The Stars defense never fully adjusted after the line juggling, and Giroux went on to score goals in each of the next two outings in the Lone Star State, including the overtime winner in game five, but in true French fashion, he refused to take all of the credit.

“I thought there was more than one turning point in the series; certainly the meetings played a part, but you could also say when we were down 3-1 in game three. Even as dire as the situation looked, you could not feel a sense of panic on the bench. When we came back in that game, we really gained a lot of confidence. If I had to pinpoint one thing, it would be battling back from that adversity of being down 3-1.”

If the Bears are to three-peat in the 2010-11 season, it will be without at least eight players, including goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, who were in the lineup for the clincher against Texas. However, French is quick to realize that for the most part, the player personnel decisions are out of his hands and in the very capable hands of the Bears/Capitals brain trust, who have made some quality additions to organization to compensate for the players that have moved on.

“Doug Yingst deserves a lot of credit, but honestly also guys like Brian MacLellan, the assistant GM in Washington and George McPhee (Washington’s GM), also do a great job of evaluating players. I think everybody knew that there would be a sizable transition of players this year, but it’s nice to see that we have gotten some quality individuals as well.”

“As a coach, we don’t get too involved in the player acquisition part of it. Other people do that, so as a coach you can refresh. You’ve got mixed emotions with some of the guys who are leaving, but also very motivated to do it again with another bunch of guys.”

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