TORONTO – Resting nearly 600 kilometres north of Toronto is the rustic Manitoulin Island, a scenic setting in Lake Huron that recently played host to the head coach of the Maple Leafs.
Randy Carlyle actually owns a cottage on what is known to be the biggest lake island on the planet and with the NHL lockout dragging on he's had the chance to pay it an uncommon winter visit.
"I've been hunting actually," Carlyle told TSN.ca with a large grin of his exploits during the latest work stoppage, joined on this day at Ricoh Coliseum by assistant coach Dave Farrish.
While he hadn't been hunting in seven, maybe eight years, Carlyle took the free time he's been dealt to join a few buddies for their annual hunting outing. "I didn't actually shoot any shots, but I observed a few and what not," he said of the four-day distraction from lockout chatter offered by the trek. "When you go and do those things that gives you a release from all of that. You go away and your mind is in a different area. It clears your mind and you're focused on something else. I think the time when you have those thoughts are when you're coming back here and it's on the TV, it's on every broadcast, 'what's the update, day 61, day 62'."
The life of an NHL head coach during a lockout is unusual and frankly, dull. Gone for the moment is the endless planning, strategizing, scheduling and tireless thought required of the job. Not to mention the grind of daily practices, games, player conferences, coaching staff and management meetings and a daily assortment of media dealings.
"It's boring," Carlyle grinned of his first work stoppage as an NHL head coach. "It's one of those things that this is the hand you're dealt so you're trying to make sure that you're filling your time with some productivity.
"There's no real timetable, there's no real format that anybody is adhering to...It was nice to be able to go hunting for a couple days with some buddies up in Northern Ontario. My daughter's into the riding so I've been spending more time there. The garage has been cleaned and moved around a bunch of times. The Christmas decorations are up. Those are all the things that you do."
More importantly, Carlyle and his coaching staff have also taken a watchful eye over the Toronto Marlies and prospects within the organization at large. They've been spectators from afar at practices of their American League affiliate – "We're not here to interfere, we're not here to coach, we're here to observe" – closely monitoring work habits and preparations of players before watching the subsequent transition to game action. They've also made regular trips to Oshawa (Tyler Biggs), Mississauga (Stuart Percy), Guelph (Matt Finn) and other local barns for a first-hand look at some of the club's top junior prospects.
While he emerged as a hidden gem as a rookie at the NHL level last season, Jake Gardiner has again caught the eye of the Leafs coach with his American League efforts thus far (five goals, 12 points in 18 games). "He's not sitting here waiting for the NHL to start," Carlyle said with earnest praise. "He's not focused on when the lockout's ending or if it's ending, he's a Toronto Marlie and he's going out and he's playing, he's putting that uniform on and he's representing the Toronto Marlies and he's a big part of their hockey club. And that to me is a huge, huge benefit not only for him, but for our organization."
As far as the lockout is concerned, well, Carlyle has been observing closely the deceiving highs and frustrating lows of the process.
"I try to remain attached to it, but my responsibility is to make sure that our team is ready when they tell us to play," said the Sudbury native, formerly the head coach of the since-departed Manitoba Moose during the 2004-05 lockout.
Carlyle met with his staff (which includes new goalie coach Rick St. Croix, along with incumbent assistants Farrish, Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon) in mid-September for what were to be final preparations for the first week of training camp, a process that's been stalled completely by the work stoppage. A one-week sprint toward the start of the regular season is likely to be in the cards if and when the lockout ends, requiring some contingency plans. "I don't go on ifs," said Carlyle with a laugh. "There's too many ifs in life. When they tell me what we're going to do and what the schedule is we'll put a plan in place. We've obviously thought of plan A, B, C and D. I think really what we're waiting for is the 'go' and then we'll react accordingly."
At least one aspect of the plan will include a full evaluation of the organization, a comprehensive review of which young players – among the likes of Morgan Rielly, Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri, Korbinian Holzer, the since-KHL bound Leo Komarov, Mike Kostka, Paul Ranger, Ben Scrivens – deserve a real, hard look for the tentative opening night roster. "We want to have the best possible players on the ice at every possible moment and that's what we're going to focus on," Carlyle noted. "There's some people here [with the Marlies] that have earned that opportunity and have opened people's eyes. They should be credited for that."
Carlyle has long since combed over his roster, tinkering with line combinations, pairings and such. For now he, like many, can only wait.
"The time-frame that they'll give us once the decision is to play and when the decision is to play, it'll be a short one," he concluded. "When it's a go, that's when our responsibility takes over, make sure that we have everything in place and we can be up and running as quickly as possible."