By Nick Patterson, The Herald
James Stucky can pinpoint the moment he knew in his heart that Kevin Constantine was back.
It was Friday evening the weekend before training camp began and the Everett Silvertips equipment manager was cutting through the locker room to head home when he passed by the coaches room.
“The lights were out in the coaches office and there they were doing video,” Stucky recalled. “It just struck me: ‘Wow, the work ethic, he’s still got it.’
“That weekend is kind of a symbolic weekend for the hockey operations people, because that’s your last weekend,” added Stucky, who’s the lone member of Everett’s hockey operations staff who was around the last time Constantine was the head coach. “Five o’clock on that Friday you’re getting out of town and enjoying the weekend because it’s going to be a while before you get another one. So it just kind of struck me that he was right back into it.”
It’s been more than six years since Constantine was last behind the bench for the Silvertips, and his path from then to now wound through three countries on two continents. But Constantine has returned home, and he returns largely the same coach he was during his first stint with the Tips.
|• Tips coach is teacher, motivator and a winner|
“I can tell you this, the goal is no different,” he added. “Your goal at the coaching level is winning and putting banners up and helping players advance their careers and helping young men become men. Is there a wrinkle or two in the strategies to accomplish that goal? Probably. But the intensity of trying to accomplish those goals is not one iota less.”
This preseason has been like stepping into a time machine for those in Silvertips Land, with Constantine’s return stirring up memories from the past. Constantine first arrived in Everett in 2003, hired as the franchise’s first head coach. He proceeded to perform miracles, taking the expansion Tips all the way to the Western Hockey League championship series.
The success did not stop there. Under Constantine, Everett won the U.S. Division in three of his four seasons in charge. In 2006-07, the Silvertips won 54 games and earned the Scotty Munro Trophy for the league’s best record. Everett won seven playoff series during those four seasons.
In 2007, Constantine stepped down to become the coach of the Houston Aeros, then the American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. After three seasons in Houston, Constantine headed to Europe, where he spent three seasons coaching professionally in France and Switzerland.
Since Constantine’s departure, Everett has been something of an afterthought in the WHL. The Tips made the playoffs all six seasons Constantine was gone, but Everett was eliminated in the first round each time. The Tips had winning records in just two of those six seasons, and the past three seasons Everett barely squeezed into the postseason, earning the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff berth each time.
Those struggles made the rehiring of Constantine extremely popular among the team’s fanbase. Fans, remembering what the Constantine-coached Everett teams accomplished, showed up in droves at the press conference earlier this year introducing him as the team’s new head coach, giving him a standing ovation when he first appeared. At Everett’s first three preseason games, the Comcast Arena crowd cheered enthusiastically during team introductions when Constantine’s name was announced.
“We’ve seen some nice little jumps in ticket sales,” said Everett assistant general manager Zoran Rajcic, one of the few remaining front-office staffers from Constantine’s first stint with the team. “We’re getting some people back who were removed the last couple years, hoping we’d become a better hockey team. I think the people are still attached to what Kevin and the first group of players did here. I think everybody hopes that rekindles a little bit.”
Constantine’s hiring, while popular, still came with a few raised eyebrows. Everett general manager Garry Davidson, who took over in February of 2012, had no prior history with Constantine. Davidson also favors offensive hockey, while Constantine’s teams have a reputation of being defensively sound. But Constantine won Davidson over.
“As we went through the process, the part I think that sold Garry was when he talked to the former players — the Torrie Wheats and the Brennan Sonnes — and everybody said that Kevin made them a better player,” Rajcic said. “I think that helped change Garry’s opinion of what he was looking for in a coach. I know he’s taken some heat because he was talking offense, offense, offense. But he wanted a teacher, and I think people missed that component of it.
“He wanted someone to be able to teach the kids, and I think we’ve already seen the Kevin Constantine touch in a short period of time.”
No one teaches the game quite like Constantine, who is one of the great students of hockey. Constantine is as good as it gets when it comes to breaking down the Xs and Os of the sport. That’s because he’s dedicated to spending the time required to rigorously break down each and every bit of video he can get his hands on.
Need an example? Upon being hired by the Tips, Constantine spent the rest of the summer reviewing the NHL playoffs, looking for the trends that developed in North American hockey while he spent the past three years in Europe.
This is the same formula Constantine used to great effect during his first stint with Everett.
“Part of my strength as a coach is my knowledge of the game, and part of my passion for coaching is teaching the game,” Constantine said. “I don’t think you ever lose your strengths as a coach. You’re always trying to improve in all areas of coaching. There might be some subtle changes in how we do things, but the passion for the players to learn the game and the passion for me to teach the game, I don’t think that will change much.”
So the current Kevin Constantine is essentially the same as the previous Kevin Constantine. But maybe — just maybe — Constantine has softened a tad over the years.
“He isn’t quite as hard right now, he’s been very easy to deal with the first month-and-a-half he’s been here,” Rajcic observed. “It’s the beginning of the season, maybe that will change a little bit. But I have noticed a calmer demeanor to Kevin. Even the first couple games, you saw him being quite patient on the bench. Maybe the real bullets aren’t flying yet and he’s trying not to scare off all the players in the first go-around.”
But Constantine also has a reputation as a motivator. Part of why Everett overachieved so much that first season was because Constantine was able to will the players into elevating their games beyond all imagining. Sometimes that requires a firm touch. But tough love isn’t Constantine’s only motivational technique, as he demonstrated during the introductory meeting for training camp.
“He did a speech about getting on the bus, and man, I was ready to run through a wall for him,” Stucky said. “I was so inspired and excited, it was awesome. Right out of the gate, the initial meeting of training camp, before anyone was on the ice. If I’m feeling like, ‘Whatever you say coach, I’m on board,’ I can’t imagine how those 80 kids sitting there were feeling. It gave me goosebumps.”
That’s the kind of reaction Constantine can elicit.
That’s the kind of thing Constantine did when he coached Everett before.
And that’s what the Tips are hoping Constantine can accomplish again.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.