When Phil David, left, was plugged into the head coaching job in Peterborough, England, he was faced with a last-place team full of underachievers.
There was some talent on the squad to be sure, good skaters and a
scorer or two, including one of the league’s best. But the team’s main
goal-getter was also a prima donna who put himself first.
David knew something had to be done in his first game behind the bench when the player ignored his signal to come off the ice during a power play. Everyone in the crowd saw the insubordination, and though he was on the job for only a day, David realized he’d have to pull the plug on the team’s top player. Within a month, he was gone.
David faced a firestorm of criticism in the newspapers, but he could see in the dressing room and on the bench that the team’s mood changed. It was like a huge burden had been lifted off players’ shoulders, and they responded by going on a 16-1 streak. By last week, Peterborough had amassed a 29-8-3 record since David’s arrival. They were 4-4 when he took the job.
For David, 42, it all went to show that the lessons of hockey are universal, whether they’re applied in Toronto minor leagues or with professionals in England.
To succeed, you need talent, speed, finesse, hard work and a good attitude, he said. That’s how he builds his teams, whether they’re midget squads in Toronto or the semi-pro Phantoms in Peterborough, a city of 150,000 that’s 86 miles north of London.
The Phantoms play in England’s Premier League, the country’s second tier that includes Chelmsford Chieftains, Slough Jets and Bracknell Bee’s.
For David, the call to coach the Phantoms came out of the blue and was something of a blessing. In August 2006, he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent emergency surgery. During the subsequent chemotherapy, complications arose and he was hospitalized for weeks. He lost his job in marketing, but by September 2007 he was running his own business and was serving as an assistant with his old team, the Toronto Junior Canadiens, when an old friend from Camp Kadimah, near Halifax, called and told him about a job opening in England.
David, a native of Sydney, N.S., was flown over for the interview. He was offered the job, but given only five days in which to start. He hurried back to Toronto, put his personal affairs in order and rushed back to England.
Given all he had been through, he felt it was the right thing to do. The cancer scare “was a life-changing event. It put a lot of things in perspective.”
He was no longer as interested in pursuing materialist objectives. Instead, getting back full time to a profession he loved held all the allure he wanted.
Last week, as the season wore down, the Phantoms had secured a playoff spot and were jockeying for position in the post-season seedings. They defeated the Chelmsford Chieftains 8-5 on home ice to vault into third place.
David came to the Phantoms after many years of coaching in Toronto. Like many in the dwindling Jewish community of Cape Breton (it dropped from 150 families in the 1970s when he was growing up to 30-35 today), David left to pursue better opportunities. He cut his coaching teeth in the Toronto minor hockey system.
Starting in 1993 as a goalie coach for a Select team in north Toronto, he caught the coaching bug, or what he calls “a healthy addiction to it.”
An avid student of the game – he tries to attend at least one coaching seminar every year – he moved from Select to AA hockey, registering some success with the Scarborough Young Bruins, a midget team (16 and 17 year olds) and the North Toronto Midgets. He coached the North York Midgets as well, and two of his three midget teams finished first in their leagues.
In 2003, he moved up to AAA, taking a job with the Junior Canadiens, at the time, a last-place team.
In three years, they improved from 12th, to 7th and then to 4th in the league. During the 2005-06 season, they were league and provincial champions and competed nationally at the Telus Cup. They lost in the semifinals to the eventual national champions.
Over the years, David developed his own coaching style that demands puck pursuit and forechecking. He looks for good skaters who employ finesse, and he requires his players to put hockey ahead of everything except family and school or work.
“That’s the kind of player I love,” he said. “On top of that, I look for strength on the puck.”
Though physical skills are key, equally important is the right attitude – a willingness to learn and take instruction, to put the team first and work hard.
A goalie of no mean skill in his own right, as a youth he played AAA hockey for some very good teams. His midget club went to the national championships, and he notes with pride he was named tournament all-star ahead of the legendary Patrick Roy. After that, however, their careers diverged. Roy went on to the National Hockey League, Stanley Cups and an award as playoff MVP, while David played intra-mural hockey at Dalhousie University.
“I peaked at 17,” he quipped. What’s more, looking back, he realizes he didn’t have the kind of attitude he now demands of a player. He acknowledges he was too focused on himself and was “an uncoachable kid.”
“I would have kicked myself off the team within a week,” he said.