Q&A: GREG IRELAND
Get to know the Head Coach of the San Antonio Rampage.
Friday, 05.09.2008 / 1:28 PM / Features
By Heath Price-Khan
Greg Ireland has people in San Antonio talking about more than just the Spurs and The Alamo! In his first season as Head Coach of the San Antonio Rampage, Ireland led the Phoenix Coyotes AHL affiliate to a record of 42-28-3-7 for 94 points, which was a franchise record, and earned them a playoff berth. In their first round series with the Toronto Marlies, Ireland led his team to the franchise’s first win in its postseason history. They would fall just shy of winning that series after a heartbreaking 2-1 loss in Game 7. There is no doubt that this was a successful first campaign for a rising star behind the bench. After spending some time talking with Coach Ireland it is very easy to see why he is so highly regarded as one of the bright up and coming minds in the coaching profession.
Greg Ireland: There are a couple sides to it. When we came in here, our number one agenda was to change the culture and provide an environment that gives our prospects the opportunity to flourish, and develop in a winning environment. From that aspect, we feel really good in creating an environment where guys come in and know they have to work hard and compete every day in practice and at the gym. At the same time, the expectations are that if we work hard, success is going to come. We want to provide a winning environment and do that consistently on a year to year basis. We want to be a team that competes every year in this league. So now, I really feel we have a chance to take the next step. Next year we need to raise the bar a little bit higher. Based on that, we are a little bit disappointed because we felt we could have gone a little further in the playoffs, but we are not at all upset with the effort from our players.
HPK: Are there any things you will look to adjust and do differently in year two?
GI: Next year what you are going to see is a different look to the team. We are going to have a younger squad where we rely on the younger guys to play a key role. I think it is going to be even more hands on for us as coaches in terms of development, and one on one teaching. At the same time, we are going to be a little more dynamic with some high end skilled players. Our veterans that come back will also play a crucial role in helping us bring those prospects along.
GI: Kevin is a real cerebral player. I could just see his mind turning as he was taking everything in and assessing it. I think that is just how his mind works, he really just finds out where things are at. Porter finds that level of comfort and then just steps in and excels. Both those Michigan guys came in and did a great job for us. They made a huge impact which is hard to do. I really think Kevin Porter can be a dynamic player. He sees the ice well and is responsible defensively which enables him to kill penalties. He’s got a great knack of finding the right people on the ice with the puck as well.
HPK: You mention that Porter is a cerebral player. Do you think that is something that comes more from a guy that spends 4 years at a great university like Michigan?
GI: What I have learned at this level is that every individual is different. They all bring a different set of assets and experiences. Good players are good players who will rise to the occasion and find their own comfort level and excel. Each player really just has to choose the path that is best for them. When you see a special player you just know it.
GI: The thing for Chad is that he is going to have to overcome some of the predispositions about his level of play and size. I’ll tell you what; this is a guy who wants to make an impact. In his first 7 games in the AHL he had 4 goals and 2 assists for us. He did a tremendous job, he has a great stick. What I really liked with both of them was after they played a game where we thought their level of play had slipped and that they might be wearing down, they came back the next night and played outstanding. They knew they had not been their best in the last game so to me that showed what kind of competitors they are, and the dedication they have. That’s the thing with Kolarik, he knows that he has to work hard and be responsible defensively, but you get him anywhere in the offensive zone and his stick is going to find the puck, and the puck is going to find the net.
HPK: 2007 1st round pick (30th Overall) Nick Ross also joined the Rampage after the Coyotes signed him. Talk a little bit about his game and his potential.
GI: Nick got a chance to jump in and play some games for us which was a nice surprise and something we were not expecting. We were able to get his feet wet a little bit and teach him about what it is like to be a pro, and a part of the Phoenix Coyotes organization. The thing with Nick is that he is a quiet kid and when you are 18 or 19 playing against 25 to 30 year old players it is a giant step. He did a great job for us. You can really tell that he sees the ice well and is skilled at moving the puck. The things we worked on with him were doing things at a higher intensity, and a quicker pace. Sprinting to areas, instead of just taking your time to get there, and doing everything with a little more authority. If he takes that philosophy back with him and continues to work on that, he is a guy with a bright future.
HPK: Did you get to see Brett MacLean at all?
GI: Just in practice, but he is just a big strong kid with a great stick. The puck gets off his stick really quick so you can understand why he put all those points up. Again, with Brett the things we are going to look to work on are doing things at a quicker pace with much more authority, especially along the boards and defensively. He is a guy that we are going to look for big things from next year.
|Enver Lisin lights the lamp.
GI: The guy that I was really excited with was Enver Lisin. I thought he did a great job with his growth in maturity. His off ice habits and his focus were much better. In taking the time to get to know him, I really found that he has a real purpose to himself. In San Antonio we were able to make a positive impact on him as far as getting him to be a more explosive player. When he keeps his feet moving, he is a very strong player at this level and certainly a hard guy to handle. I think both mentally and physically he was able to make huge strides. It’s interesting because I really think that as he gets more confidence and structure, he will be able to take his game to another level.
HPK: What was the one main thing you worked on with Enver Lisin in San Antonio?
GI: He’s fine when he gets the puck. It was more about what he does when he does not have it. He needs to keep his feet moving when he is away from the play so that he can get in areas and support the puck. The other side of it was defensively in terms of backchecking and being aware in his own end.
HPK: Where do you envision his ceiling as an NHL player? Can he be a top six forward that scores 25-30 goals?
GI: He is a guy with good hands that can really shoot the puck. Obviously his strengths have not been on the defensive side, but he cares and wants to get better at that. The sky is the limit with him right now. If he really dedicates himself, he can become a great two-way player for this organization. There is a lot of work in front of him, but if he puts his mind to it, he will put a lot of points up. The puck has a way of finding him.
HPK: Is there a guy down there that might be under some fans radar who you think might make an impact in the NHL next year?
GI: A lot of our prospects have been up for a cup of coffee and the fans are familiar with them. It’s hard to say, but we have two bright young goaltenders down here that I have been very happy with. We made a trade for Al Montoya, and also have Josh Tordjman in San Antonio. I think both those guys have an opportunity to step up and become NHL goaltenders. They both performed very well for us down the stretch, so I really think goaltending can be a bright spot for this organization with a lot of depth there. Those are the two guys that people should take a good look at.
|Al Montoya with Glen Sather (left) and Don Maloney (right)|
GI: Goaltending and defense are the two toughest positions because of the way they are under the microscope. The closer you get to your own net; every goal that goes in is scrutinized. Look at rookie Carey Price for the Montreal Canadiens who had a terrific year, but after his performance in the playoffs, the tables are now turned and he is getting scrutinized. There is a maturity process that goaltenders go through. When you are at the lower levels, you can be very active and move around, the shooters are not as quick getting the puck off the stick so you can make saves based on your reflexes and athleticism. At our level, it is all about positioning, less is more. Both of our goalies are learning that if their games are quieter in terms of movement; they will be in a better position to block. Then they can use their athleticism on the second and third saves. I think both of our goalies are really going to benefit from having Sean Burke on board to work on the maturation process with them. Someone earlier this year told me that most goaltenders have to change organizations to make it in the NHL because of patience. You need to have more patience with goalies than any other position.
GI: Brenden was excellent for us all year. He was probably our top defensemen in terms of reliability, performance, maturity, leadership, and so on. He is a consummate pro who cares and battles hard every day. The big thing for Brenden is that at the AHL level, he probably gets away with things that he can’t in the NHL. He is able to rush the puck here and beat guys, but in the NHL you really need to move the puck quickly and be sound in your own end. Those are the things he knows he needs to work on, but he played a lot of minutes for us and he did a great job. Working on those things will help him get better and he needs to be trending upward in those departments.
HPK: How does your relationship with Don Maloney and Brad Treliving work? When they send you a player do they give you specific instructions on what they need to work on? How collaborative is the process?
GI: We talk on a daily basis, especially Brad and I. They are really good at communicating with us about the type of players we are getting and what they need to work on. They also welcome our feedback about where a player is at after we have had them for a bit. It is funny how much our philosophical ideas on the game really mesh, and I think that is an important factor, but at the same time, they want to see some fresh out of the box ideas as well. Don and Brad are really willing to listen, but at the same time our job here is to develop players for the Phoenix Coyotes and that is what we do. I really like the teaching end of it so having a game plan with guys when they come in is important. Then as they start to get it, you can add layers and new dimensions to that plan. It is really important that we instill the foundations and fundamentals to their game very early in the process.
GI: It’s really close. When we have the puck, we want to possess it and not just give it away recklessly. When we don’t have it, we want to get after it real quick. We want to have a physical element to our game, and be finishing hits. Everybody is required to back check and work hard on every shift. We want people driving to the net hard. I watched a lot of the Coyotes games this season, and that work ethic was very evident. With guys like Winnik, Weller, Hanzal, Mueller and a leader like Doan, you just see how hard they work and get after the puck, so it is nice to see that the teams do mirror each other.
HPK: How much contact do you have with the Coyotes coaching staff?
GI: I talk with Associate Coach Ulf Samuelsson quite a bit and send him reports after every game. He is pretty much the liaison with our staff and does a great job of communicating ideas on systems and players. When you have a good mesh and everyone is on the same page it helps the development process. We want players that get called up to understand the system and what is expected of them. They need to be ready to play so having that continuity between the staffs is very important.
HPK: Speaking of coaching, who have been some of your influences as a coach?
GI: When I was in Grand Rapids for four years I developed good relationships with Barry Smith and Dave Lewis. Mike Babcock (Detroit Red Wings Head Coach) has also been great over the last couple years. We still talk a couple times a month and trade ideas so I have learned a lot from Mike and his whole staff. I really try to keep an eye on leaders, not just coaches, but people in all walks of life that are great leaders. I look at people that have excelled and examine how they have done it. I try to take a lot from people that range from military personnel to business leaders, and of course athletics.
GI: To be honest with you, I am a little bit of everything. I am a very intense guy that believes there is only one way to play this game, and that is with high energy, and intensity. At the same time, I am a guy that will listen. I will kick a player in the pants, and also pat them on the back. I really take a lot of pride in teaching so I think of myself as a teacher first. As a result, my game as a coach is still rounding itself out. Each year you get a little bit better as you look at yourself. I love the cerebral side of X’s & O’s, as well as the teaching and development. My beliefs are firm. This is a game of passion and emotion that is meant to be played at a high pace. If players are doing their job, I am down there giving those high fives and pats on the back, and if they are not, I am going to let them know what is expected of them.
HPK: What is your biggest strength as a coach and what is something you are still trying to get better at?
GI: At the end of the day, my strength is communication and teaching. I have the ability to lay things out and express them very well. I am very intense and I think teams take on the persona of their coach. For me, it is about honing that intensity and focusing it in the right way and learning that sometimes less is more. You don’t always have to be quite as hands on as a coach if you are going to make it to the next level. At the AHL level, it is a lot different than the NHL because we only have two coaches and they might have five. Here you have to wear many hats because you can’t channel as much through your assistants. Sometimes in the AHL, you are the assistant as well. If I am ever going to make it up there as part of a bigger staff I am really going to have to focus on the little things.
HPK: Is your dream job to one day become an NHL Head Coach?
GI: It’s not just about being a head coach for me. It is more about being a part of a great organization. There are a lot of times you can get a job in the NHL and if the situation is not right, you can wash out pretty quickly. If I get that type of opportunity, I want it to be with the right organization where I have a chance to bring my skill set to the table and have success. Whether you are a head, or assistant coach, the most important thing is to be a part of a good staff, and a good team.
HPK: How is San Antonio developing as a hockey market? Are the fans embracing the sport?
GI: It’s kind of a funny situation where some nights early in the season with Texas High School Football going on you might have 1,500-1,700 fans, but there are other nights where we had 7,000-9,000 people in the building. One thing I noticed is that no matter how many we have on a given night, it always sounds like there is double because they are very passionate. There is a group of people that come no matter what and they love the game and are knowledgeable about it. The thing we really caught fire with this year was bringing new people to the building and showing them that watching the game live is a lot of fun. I’m really interested to see how many of them got hooked and will be coming back next year for more games.
HPK: Did any of the Spurs like Tim Duncan or Tony Parker make an appearance at a game?
GI: We had guys like Brent Barry and Matt Bonner, who was a regular at games. Bonner came from Toronto and is a big hockey fan so we would see him quite a bit. Brent Barry and I talk hockey at times, but with the other guys like Duncan and Parker, I am not sure if they ever came to a game. The Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford spoke to our team about how they used a long road trip to ramp up for the playoffs. That was a great opportunity for our guys to learn how a championship team prepares and overcomes obstacles.