Steve Yzerman betting a coach who connects with players is key to Detroit Red Wings’ future

Detroit Free Press

Derek Lalonde likes to talk. He will eventually talk to you. Not directly, perhaps, but he won’t be afraid to step to the microphone after a game or practice and tell you what he thinks of your Detroit Red Wings.

Yes, your Red Wings. He may be the team’s new steward from the bench, the 28th coach in team history, but he understands who the team ultimately belongs to.

Which is why he called his job as Hockeytown’s newest head coach “a huge responsibility” late Friday morning from the basement of Little Caesars Arena, where he sat flanked by Red Wings owner Chris Ilitch and general manager Steve Yzerman.

Talk about gauging the room.

Before he talks to you, though, he’s going to talk to his players, one-by-one. Conversations, he said, that will be critical to establishing the player-coach relationship.

“I’ve been a relationship-based coach my entire career,” Lalonde said during his introductory news conference, during which the word “relationship” came up several times.

This wasn’t shade thrown to his predecessor, Jeff Blashill, whose demeanor could be, shall we say, serious. Not that coaching an NHL team isn’t serious business. It is. It’s just not life-or-death business.

And these days, it helps when the coach knows how to talk to his players. More critically, it helps when the coach understands his players.

[ Derek Lalonde plans to make the Wings harder to play against. Here’s how ]

Lalonde may have been born with an eye for the subtleties of human nature, so many with the gift of seeing inside others are. He honed his inclinations, though, through stops far away from the NHL.

He began coaching at Division III North Adams State, and if any of you can guess where that is we’ll see if Lalonde will let you be next to him on the bench during his debut next October.

North Adams State is located in North Adams, Massachusetts. Yes, I had to look it up. No, I didn’t know that the school changed its name to Massachusetts of Liberal Arts. But I do now. And so do you.

Lalonde was an assistant there for four years before stops at Lebanon Valley College, Hamilton College and Ferris State and  the University of Denver. After five years, he left for Green Bay, where he coached the Gamblers of the United States Hockey League, and where he won — frequently.

From there, he coached the Toledo Walleye in the ECHL and eventually the Iowa Wild in the AHL. Finally, in 2018, he was hired by Steve Yzerman as an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

He won at every stop. This doesn’t happen without relationships. Or, he said, “a huge passion to win.”

Lalonde’s experience in collegiate hockey put him in the homes of potential recruits. He had to learn to talk to players and their families, and he’ll tell you those conversations helped build his identity as a coach.

Yzerman spotted that in Lalonde when he crossed paths with him first in Green Bay, and then for a season in Tampa. And though Yzerman left, he continued to get reports on the assistant he helped hire.

“We use that term, ‘players’ coach,” Yzerman said. “Derek’s personality, the environment that he wants to create and has created at all stops along the way, I felt like he was the best fit for our team, where we are, where we are hoping to go.”

You can guess where that is, of course. This is Hockeytown. Cup parades are the standard, though it has been a while.

Lalonde is familiar with parades, too, it must be noted. The team he helped coach had won 11 straight playoff series before last week, when the Lightning lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Final.

That’s two titles and a near-title by my math. And while Lalonde wasn’t the coach in the big seat, his influence was all over the run.

Yzerman took his time finding a coach after he fired Blashill a couple months back. He considered established, veteran coaches and he considered other assistants who might be ready for a chance.

“A fresher face,” he said.

In the end, he took the chance on development, on a coach who will have the chance to grow with the young team. It wasn’t surprising considering Yzerman did this in Tampa, too, when he hired Jon Cooper.

He had a young-ish team in Tampa. He has a young team in Detroit. And while the parallels are obvious, the former Wings captain insists that he isn’t trying to replicate the Lightning.

Now, he’d love to replicate the success, obviously. But he is bringing Lalonde to take over one of the most iconic franchises in the game to impart his own feel and vibe.

A vibe that wasn’t hard to spot Friday at LCA, where the new coach dapped up a few familiar faces in the room, revealed an easy, even self-deprecating manner and made clear that while relationships are the key to how he coaches, he will hold his young guys accountable.

“Good players want to be held accountable,” he said. “I’ve found (the NHL) to be more of a partnership. I want to be open-minded on every player.”

He learned this in college. Learned that when he showed he cared and got to know who was playing for him, they would reward him with trust when he had to tell them something they didn’t want to hear.

Here’s guessing he will tell you and me that, too. That he will speak his mind, but smile and joke at times, the aspirin in the jelly, as it were.

Be who you are is what Lalonde picked up in North Adams and in Green Bay and in Iowa and in Tampa. Also, be where you are, for it’s easy to sniff out insincerity.

“Throughout my career, it was never about getting to the NHL, it was never about being at the next level. I concentrated on where I was at.”

And now he is here, a “players’ coach,” new to the charge of leading a team at the highest level, open of mind and spirit, betting that what he’s learned along the way will mesh with a promising young group of players.

Yzerman is betting the same thing, too.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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