Marc “Crow” Crawford has spent a good deal of time behind the bench as head coach for some of the best teams in the NHL. He broke into the league in 1995 with the Quebec Nordiques and later that year won the NHL’s Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, the youngest coach in history to win the award. The following year, he won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. After a seven year stint (1998-2006) with the Vancouver Canucks, during which he is credited with rebuilding the team, he continued on to head the LA Kings and the Dallas Stars.
But after the 2011 season, NHL opportunities dried up and he accepted a position in Zurich with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League. Not skipping a beat, he led the team to to three NLA regular season championship titles, the 2014 Swiss championship and the 2016 Swiss Cup. Now, after a four year hiatus from the NHL, Crawford accepted a position as an associate coach for the Ottawa Senators where he’ll be for the 2016-17 season.
In this instalment of FROM BEHIND THE BENCH, Crow talks about what he has learned along the way and what it means to be back in the “best league in the world.”
The year I took the position in Switzerland, I’d interviewed quite extensively for jobs in the National Hockey League and I came very close. I did four interviews with Montreal, and a number of interviews with Washington. And when I didn’t get either of those jobs, the one thing I realized was that I really did want to coach.
The opportunity in Zurich was of interest to me for a number of reasons. My wife and I were becoming empty nesters, our daughter was heading into her first year of University, so it came at a time when we were experiencing a change in our lives and the opportunity to go do something on another continent was exciting. So, the timing was really right for everybody involved.
When you experience a new culture, you get to experience a new way of doing things, and I think that’s always progressive and good for anyone. For me as a coach, I thought it was a great opportunity to develop and learn something new.
Over 80 percent of our players were Swiss born and Swiss trained, so I really got an idea of how to work with European trained and guided athletes. The players I worked in Europe with are very structured people, I would say their training for ice hockey is very rigid. Learning that the athletes needed to have structure, and that they needed to know the “why” of everything that was going on, rather than just the “do” of things was an important initial step for me in changing my way of coaching.
I’ve been coaching since 1987 when I was first an assistant coach in the American Hockey League, so I’ve seen a number of generations of athletes as a coach. North American athletes in those days were a little harder. There was more of the culture that the coach tells you to do something, and you try and do it to the best of your ability, and you don’t really ask why. You interact but if the coach doesn’t talk to you, that’s probably a good thing.
Now, here, things have changed completely and it is very much like it is in Europe where athletes want to know why you do things. They want answers to questions and saying “because I said so” just doesn’t work.
Another great thing about the European experience was that I was able to get back to the roots of coaching. As a head coach in the NHL, you learn very quickly that staffs are big and you work with so many people—your medical trainer, your strength and conditioning people, your club psychologists, your coaching staff. I’ve had staffs with as many as six assistants of one ilk or another. So organizing your staff and delegating and sharing responsibility is a big part of what makes a good NHL coach.
In Europe, I had one assistant coach and, as a result, I was back to doing a lot of work that I had been delegating before. It was very refreshing and it felt great to get back to the roots of being on the ice and actually showing players skills. When I coached Junior and in the American Hockey League it was very much like that, and being in Zurich showed me the value of being hands on again.
I felt that I had a much better handle on the individual players, and a much better handle on the team process.There is no substitute for doing the work yourself. So that was a great lesson for me at my age, of how important it is to continue to learn and to do the work.
The NHL is the best league in the world, plain and simple; you are constantly challenged to the highest degree, and I really feel that I’ve got a lot to offer. In the position I’ve taken in Ottawa, I’m going to be a support coach, but I think my resume stands for itself, and now I’ve added a development tool to my repertoire. Over here, players develop a natural hockey sense from a very young age, and there, it’s something you have to try and teach. So from that standpoint, I think it has really made me a better coach and I think it’s something that will really lend itself well to being a support for Guy Boucher.
I am really looking forward to being back in the league. Of course, it will be a change for me—I’m going to be the associate coach so I’m going to be taking direction. But the best players in the world are there, and it’s great to work with talented people. Working with Austin Matthews was one of the best parts of my experience in Europe. I’ve worked with a lot of great players but he’s the kind of player where you get that feeling of sheer admiration and you think, “Can he ever do a lot of things and do them well.” That is a great feeling for a coach, and I’m looking forward to having that feeling more often with the caliber of athletes I’ll be working with with the Senators.
I’ve had a lot of great support coaches in my time that I’ve been able to learn from— Jacques Martin, Willie Desjardins, Joel Quenneville for five years when we were younger. What I’ve learned is that being a great assistant is about having strong information to give. Communication is at the forefront of coaching right now, whether you are the head coach or a support coach. You have to develop good communication habits with your players and you have to make sure you continually reinforce your message. Part of that means that you’ve got to be a good listener, too. And to make the experience for these athletes the best that it can be is to have open, two-way communication. Nowadays, you’re not only giving information but you’re receiving information, you’re listening to questions and you’re trying to collaborate.
I think now that I’m more collaborative than I ever have been in the past. I think that comes a little bit with age and a little bit with having seen a lot of different ways of doing things. Certainly the European experience has been very good for me in that regard, especially because 40 to 50 percent of our players in the NHL are European, and having been vested in that area for the last four years will be a great help.
The experience of being a support coach is exciting for me. I’ve to put a lot of thought into how I’m going to be, how I’m going to act, and how I’m going to be the best I can be for Guy Boucher, for the athletes of the Ottawa Senators, and for the Ottawa Senators franchise in general.
I’ve been spending time looking at the great assistants that I’ve had, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who I respect about what their thoughts are. I’ve got a good feel for the position and I’m excited to get going. It’s so great to be back in the NHL, I can’t say enough how much I respect people in the league, whether they are head coaches or assistant coaches, broadcasters and media people, trainers, you name it. It’s the best league in the world and when you’re a part of it, there’s nothing more thrilling.
Access to our entire library of videos from our annual TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference. You can cancel any time, although after joining a community of coaches from all over the world using the videos on a daily basis to pick up new tips and stay relevant, we doubt you will.
- FROM BEHIND THE BENCH: The Unconventional Path by Rob Cookson
- FROM BEHIND THE BENCH – Getting the Call by Glen Gulutzan
- Troy Ward – Language of Hockey