By Andy Eide
Dave Tippett has plenty of experience with pro hockey teams playing in non-traditional markets. His coaching career started with the Houston Aeros of the International Hockey League in 1994. He then moved on to the NHL as an assistant in Los Angeles before successful head coaching stints in Dallas and Phoenix. Its experience that has led to some of his peers dubbing him the ‘Sunbelt Coach’. Seattle is not part of any sort of sun belt but the announcement Monday that NHL Seattle has brought Tippett in as a senior adviser feels like a perfect fit.
While Seattle is still waiting for the official blessing of the NHL, Tippett is excited to be part of putting together the structure and building a culture with a new team.
“It’s not just collecting players and putting them on the ice,” he said Monday from the NHL Seattle’s offices. “There’s way more to it than that. It’s building a culture, having the team and the community become a bigger team (together). There’s a lot of things involved in it and when you sit back you think ‘wow, I get to be a part of that’, it’s pretty exciting.”
The process to bring Tippett to Seattle started several months ago when Tim Leiweke of the Oak View Group got in touch to gauge interest. The two men had known each other when they were both working for the Kings in Los Angeles.
After mulling it over, the prospect intrigued Tippett enough to jump on board. Of course, when a guy comes in with a coaching resume that includes a Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year in 2010, over 1100 NHL wins, three division titles, and one conference championship appearance with Arizona, the automatic conclusion many jump to is that this is a precursor to Tippett becoming Seattle’s first head coach.
Without an official franchise awarded yet, that may be putting the cart before the horse, for now.
“Tod (Leiweke) and I have talked about it and we just said that we’re not taking it off the table,” Tippett said about the notion of being the coach. “But it’s not something that I’m looking at right now. I didn’t come here with the mindset that I’m going to coach. I’m more of the mindset of the other things right now, building the foundation before we get to there. We won’t cross it off but it’s on the back burner right now.”
That foundation includes things like building the team’s practice facility, what the dressing rooms in the arena will look like, putting together a hockey operations team and system, as well as finding an American Hockey League affiliate.
Tippett’s experience makes this hire an intriguing one. This isn’t a guy who’s been away from the game for a decade and just now is deciding to be involved again. He ended his head coaching tenure with the Arizona Coyotes at the end of the 2017 season. This past year, he worked as a consultant with the St. Louis Blues and the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes.
He has remained in touch with the game and the break from the daily grind of being an NHL coach has been a positive.
“Sitting and watching the games and one of my friends was on tv and I said ‘jeez, he looks awful’,” he said with a smile. “My wife looked at me and said ‘that was you last year’. The break has been good for me. Neighbors that I have had never seen me smile.”
Tippett comes with some Seattle connections. His daughter and family live in Bremerton so he’s been to the area to visit but he has some hockey ties as well. Seattle Thunderbirds longtime general manager and owner, Russ Farwell, signed Tippett to his last NHL contract with the Philadelphia Flyers. Tippett is also friends with former Everett Silvertips general manager Doug Soetaert and former Thunderbirds head coach Peter Anholt.
He’s now looking forward to getting to know Seattle as a hockey town.
“This is a city that I think people around the league have always envisioned would be a great spot,” he added. “Location, size of the city, all the other sports. There are phenomenal sports fans here.”
With 26 years of experience as either a player or a coach in the NHL, Tippett has an idea of what every franchise needs to be successful. He says that he’ll rely on that experience, as well as consulting with other franchises, as he begins to work on building the Seattle foundation.
“There’s a whole game-day operations in there,” he said. “You want to have it state of the art, that when players show up there, they have the best chance to succeed. You build it into that, you build it into your training facility. You want the culture of your team to go right through, even down to the American league. Just the way your franchise does business, not just the hockey business, but all business.”
Where a Seattle franchise puts its American Hockey League affiliate is something that has had fans speculating. Historically, the AHL had been an East Coast league which was causing some issues for NHL teams in the West.
To lessen the distance between big league club and minor league affiliate, many NHL teams have moved their AHL teams west. That includes Tippett’s last stop in Arizona. Before he left, he was involved in bringing the Coyotes affiliate from the East Coast to Tucson.
So, where will Seattle’s team be?
“Western Hemisphere,” he said with a chuckle. “We haven’t determined that yet.”
Where and what the practice facility will look like is another major project.
NHL training facilities have evolved over time and many teams have built multi-sheet facilities that not only serve the franchise’s needs but help expand youth hockey.
Tippett saw first hand how the Dallas Stars impacted youth hockey in Texas and has already spoken with some of the local youth hockey groups in Seattle.
“(Dallas) built seven or eight community rinks and hockey is thriving there,” he said. “I’ve met with some people in minor hockey around here and there’s great excitement. There’s a lot of kids, they just need sheets of ice. I think what you’ll see if a team comes to Seattle is a boom in hockey.”
Hockey has changed since Tippett first took the ice as a player with the Hartford Whalers in 1982. That change includes how state of the art things have become and it starts with the practice facility.
“Training centers used to be a stinky dressing room where you would hang your clothes,” Tippett said. “Now you have gyms and sports science. It’s an evolution that because of the big business it is, your greatest assets are your athletes, so you better try to maximize them.”
Sports science, maximizing player potential, training, and player development are all things that Tippett wants to help establish in Seattle. Tippett talks at detail about studying player recovery, sleep, and nutrition as being important for any franchise to look at. With how much money a team invests into its players, making sure that they have state of the art facilities, training, coaching, and information is vital.
Tippett mentions a software system, called XOS, that he utilizes that allows him, or any coach, to watch every NHL game and break down individual players shifts, faceoffs, and shots. It’s all part of the evolution of hockey.
In that same vein, hockey has seen a growth in analytics over recent years. NHL teams have hired staff to look an underlying ‘advanced statistics’ to help evaluate players. Puck possession numbers like Corsi and Fenwick have become fashionable, and caused quite a debate, in the hockey world.
Tippett is on board with looking at other metrics to a degree. He likes some of it but is skeptical of others.
“It’s a useful tool,” he said. “I’ve done my own analytics program since I started coaching. I had a whole system that I’ve built through that XOS. Some numbers like Fenwick and Corsi, they’re garbage. They’re garbage because they come off the stats upstairs. Every stat that I keep comes off a video that I watch, a scoring chance that I’ve watched and whose involved in it.”
Whether its Tippett, or another coach or general manager who looks at the analytics, eventually Seattle will need to hire front office personnel. Tippett says that the hiring of front office staff will begin to take shape closer to the 2019-2020 NHL season.
Those hires will include scouts, hockey operations staff and of course, a general manager. For now, Tippett says that they have an open mind as to what the resumes for those hires should be.
“The biggest key to me and with the way Tod likes to build teams, you have to have somebody who will fit well within the dynamics of your organization,” he said. “That would be the biggest factor. One of Vegas’ biggest strengths is that from owner to management, to coaches, and all the way down to players, they’re all on one team. They’re a close team.”
The Vegas model is a good one to follow. The Golden Knights exceeded all expectations in their inaugural season in 2018, reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
Like Vegas, hockey will be new to many people in Seattle. Winning always helps create excitement and that’s ultimately what Tippett and NHL Seattle are working to set up. From there, the opportunity to make Seattle a hockey town will come.
“We have the ability to create it ourselves from scratch, that’s intriguing,” he said. “It’s not an original six team so you’re going to have to earn the trust of the fans. The people who buy tickets are going to have to feel as good about the team as you feel about them coming.”