Bill Peters has made his way up the coaching ladder by taking every opportunity that’s come his way. He’s had stints in the WHL, AHL, CIS, plus lots of international experience. As the current head coach of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, he knows that none of it comes by chance. In this instalment of FROM BEHIND THE BENCH, he talks about his coaching journey and what he learned along the way.
The start of it
I’m an Alberta guy, born in Three Hills, but mostly raised in Killam—both are rural communities, one more of a farming community, one more oil and gas.
Mike Johnston was my first coach [as a player] at college. He had done a lot of international stuff and [his style of play] was more into open offence, a little bit more about the flow. I played for Mike for one year and then he went to UNB. Then in my last year, I played for Mike Babcock in Red Deer, I was 23 years old at the time, he was 25. Our team ended up in the national final, against a tough NAIT team coached by Perry Pearn. The coaching we received through those years was really high end, all three of those guys are elite coaches so that was really good exposure. And then when you can’t play anymore, the next best thing is to coach.
My first paid coaching position was with the Spokane Chiefs in ’99-2000 in the Western Hockey League. My first affiliation with them was in 1995, helping with some things through training camps. Then in ’97 when Mike Babcock coached Canada’s World Junior Team in Geneva, I helped out coaching the Chiefs while he was gone. That’s how I joined that organization, as an assistant coach. That was the start of it.
Then I went to the University of Lethbridge in the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) as an assistant coach and [eventually] got some head coaching experience at the CIS level. Then I came back to Spokane in ’05 as a head coach and we won the Memorial Cup in ’08. From there, I went to the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs, Chicago’s affiliate team. I spent three years there and then went to Detroit as an assistant coach. When I was done, I went to Carolina and am currently in my fourth year as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.
It’s been interesting, I’ve touched a lot of bases. I feel for me, that was the proper progression, I didn’t miss any steps.
Pick, pull and choose
When you talk to coaches, they’ll tell you, “there’s not one thing I do as a coach because that’s how I did it as a player.’ Scotty Bowman will tell you that—that’s not how you make your decisions as a coach.
And you never take everything from just one guy and say, ‘that’s what I’m going to do.’ You pick and pull and choose what’s going to work for you and your own unique style. And a lot of times the message is very similar to other guys, but it’s how it’s delivered that’s important.
Some of the best coaches of all time in our league are guys that are very instinctual on the bench. They have a really good feel for who’s playing well and what’s going on in the game.
We all have an idea of how the game is going to unfold, or we think we do, but every night you might have a guy with a better jump or one guy who’s struggling or one guy who’s playing through an injury. You move guys up and down the lineup to try and get your best nine guys going and making sure they’re getting quality ice time.
The biggest skill in the game now is the ability to skate. The size of the player doesn’t matter as much—a lot of smaller guys are having unbelievable success. When we talk about skating, it’s east-west mobility, the ability to hold on to pucks and make plays in tight spaces. There’s not a lot of room out there on the ice so you’ve got to be able to make your plays quickly and you’ve got to be able to create separation.
And then you’ve got to have hockey sense. You’ve got to know what’s going on; be able to feel it, see it. And you’ve got to be able to move the puck, and share the puck.
The guys who have hockey sense and are competitive are good with the puck, but they’re good away from the puck also—you’ve got to be able to play without the puck. You see young guys trying to break into the league and the last thing to get developed is the defensive aspect. There are kids who are used to having [the puck] all the time and they never have to play without it. But at any pro level, you’ve got to be efficient without the puck.
I’ve done four international competitions and the great thing about it is you’re getting exposure to other coaches, other ideas.
Then you go over and play over on the big ice, that’s a change — it’s 200 x 100 feet [compared to 200 x 85 feet], and European teams are more familiar with it than North American teams.
You also get to see how other countries play. There are definitely styles of play when you talk about the Swedes and the Finns and the Russians. It’s a different mindset. As a coach, you’ve got to wrap your head around that and then you’ve got to have a foundation that you believe in.
Then you get to work with the players. Sid came over to Prague for the World Hockey Championship after being eliminated in the second round of playoffs [in 2015]. We were in a coaches meeting, Todd McLellan was our head coach, and Scott Salmond comes in and says, “87 wants to join us.”
We already thought our roster was set but of course you’re going to accept the best player in the world. So 87 comes over and he’s our captain and he was fantastic in the tournament. And now you’re a better coach having spent three or four weeks with Sid.
Then the following year  in Russia, I was the head coach and we had a real good team again, and Corey Perry came over. The next thing you know, he’s the captain of our team, rightfully so, and everything just fell into place.
That’s part of an international team, too, you get people in the right spots and get everybody to buy in. The players are used to being the number one or number two centre, well that can’t happen. Everyone’s got to park their ego at the door and accept a role and play for their country. Canadian players do a better job, in my opinion, than anyone of that. They come in excited about playing with each other and for each other, and for the country.
How to: become a pro coach
Coaches are no different than players, we’re trying to get better all the time and part of that is gaining experience.
Check all the boxes all the way up the ladder.
Get involved with your provincial associations.
Take every opportunity you can.
Stay current and don’t be in a hurry. That’s the biggest thing, it’s not going to happen overnight.
Build a foundation.
Get some expertise.
Make your mistakes at the lower levels. So when you do get your opportunity at the league you want to work at, you’ve made your mistakes and you don’t have to repeat them.
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- Bill Peters – Journey to Gold Our Process
- Bill Peters & the Importance of Situational Awareness
- FROM BEHIND THE BENCH: Call Me Crow by Marc Crawford