First year was a learning experience for Yeo
ST. PAUL, Minn. — As the losses piled up in the second half of the season for the Minnesota Wild, the words became harder and harder for first-year coach Mike Yeo to find in postgame press conferences.
The emotional toll was evident on the coach's face night after night. He was exasperated after losses, relieved after wins. There were times he blasted the effort of his team and times he praised its resiliency. The free fall from the top of the NHL in mid-December to the seventh-worst record in the league — and dealing with his players, media and the public — was a learning experience.
Those losses wore on Yeo.
"I hate to lose; there's no question," Yeo said. "So, it was tough. Especially when there was a bit of a feeling when there was something we worked so hard to get was slipping away from us. There was some tough days, but there was not one day where I didn't wake up in the morning and was excited to come to the rink and get to coach this team. I know that. You go to sleep some nights in a real bad mood, and some nights you don't sleep very much, but the next day when you wake up, you get to come back and be the coach of the Minnesota Wild, it's pretty good."
The Wild (35-36-11) suffered through their first losing season since 2001-02, the organization's second season of existence. They missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Yeo was the second straight rookie head coach hired by general manager Chuck Fletcher, replacing Todd Richards after two underwhelming seasons.
But Fletcher knew who he was bringing in when he named Yeo Minnesota's third coach in its history last June. The two had worked together in the Pittsburgh Penguins' system, first at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League and then with the Penguins, including a Stanley Cup winning season in 2009.
Fletcher was familiar with Yeo's knowledge of the game. This season, he witnessed how Yeo dealt with the losses and the emotional and mental aspect of being a coach and believes the experience will serve Yeo well in the future.
"Obviously, after a game in some of these press conferences, you can see the emotion on his face, and I think that's what people respect about him and why our fans like him," Fletcher said. "I think he's human. He shows the wear and tear and the excitement after a win and the disappointment after a loss. But the next day he's ready to go. You wouldn't know if we won 6-0 or lost 6-0.
"I think that type of attitude, that ability to take the emotion of the moment, you deal with it that night after the game and then the next day you're ready and looking for solutions. He never got discouraged. I was very impressed with that for somebody that's been behind the bench for only two years as a head coach. The way he dealt with the players, the way he dealt with the media, the way he dealt with all of us, I thought was very impressive."
Yeo was an assistant coach in those previous stops with Fletcher. His first head coaching assignment was last season with the Houston Aeros, the Wild's AHL affiliate. He guided the Aeros to a 46-28-6 record and the Calder Cup finals.
The experience couldn't prepare Yeo for what he'd face with the Wild this season. Minnesota was forced to dress an NHL-high 47 players due to injuries, including 16 who made their NHL debuts. The Wild, unexpectedly, climbed to the top of the NHL in December with a 20-7-3 record. But injuries to captain Mikko Koivu and offensive forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse touched off the frequent trips to injured reserve, and as a result, Minnesota scored just 166 goals, the fewest by any NHL team since the 2005 NHL lockout.
The Wild managed just seven regulation wins in the season's final 52 games. Knowing how the season unfolded, Yeo believes he could have handled the team's injury situation differently and not pushed as hard early. But he also acknowledged letting up might not have been the best for the long-term progress of the franchise.
"I don't think that's the right thing to do because we are trying to change the culture here," Yeo said. "We have to get to the point where we have the attitude that our standards are this high, and we never dip below that. We never accept anything below. So maybe it might have given us a short-term boost, but I don't think so. I think as a group we needed to learn how to push through that.
"I think that we needed to learn that it's never OK to bring anything less than your best, and I think that we needed that accountability. Even though it was tough and even though everybody was frustrated, and even though confidence-wise we were having a tough time, again I truly believe that we had to push through that stage."
Through his own frustration, the telling postgame press conferences, the highs and the lows, Yeo said he learned a lot this year and his confidence is as high as ever.
"The one thing that I can say is that I truly believe, or have learned, that I can win in this league, that I can help this group," Yeo said. "I felt good about the way we faced the challenges, kept our passion and enthusiasm for coming to the rink every day and staying true to what we believe in. But certainly, through the course of that adversity, I learned a lot about how to deal with it."
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