Fostering a sense of belonging and camaraderie is an essential force behind any player’s success in professional sports.
For the National Hockey League, this has become a source of scrutiny in recent weeks as several stories about the abuse of power in hockey’s coaching circle have come to light. However, this is not a universal truth.
Coaches are an essential pillar in an athlete’s life and maintain a great deal of power over their professional future. Despite this fact, hockey’s trusted instructors have long been a source of inspiration for their young players and remain vital to their progression.
“It's a shame that some people don't feel that in today's game – but I do believe the positives far outweigh the negative,” said three-time Stanley Cup champion and 2014 Olympic gold medalist Patrick Sharp.
A veteran of 15 distinguished NHL seasons, Sharp amassed 620 points across 939 games – mostly for the Chicago Blackhawks – and remains in the sport as a television analyst.
His experiences as a player – from the day Sharp entered the American Hockey League in 2002 with the Philadelphia Phantoms until he announced his retirement from the NHL in 2018 – illustrate a vastly different on-ice product that’s evolved over the years. His relationship with coaches, on the other hand, remained positive as they adapted with the times.
"If you don't feel safe or comfortable in a hockey dressing room, then there's an issue,” Sharp told TSN.ca. “That should be a safe space for everybody. It was for me, not just at the pro hockey level but throughout my entire career.”
The 37-year-old Winnipeg native was fortunate to have been led by a number of accomplished coaches in professional hockey, namely Joel Quenneville, John Stevens and Ken Hitchcock. All of which can be deemed highly successful archetypes in their profession, and with good reason.
Quenneville and Hitchcock rank second and third in all-time head coaching wins, respectively.
It’s worth noting that winning is not a sole indicator of a healthy environment. The underlying pillar of success is forged through positive relationships between players, coaches and management alike.
"More than anything, I think you've got to be a people person,” said Sharp. “You’ve got to have the players like you and want to play for you – that’s probably Joel's top quality.”
The ability to utilize players according to their skillset is crucial to maximizing a team’s potential. This is especially true for young players, who are rapidly becoming more prominent as teams utilize entry-level contracts to provide more value than their salaries indicate.
“Some coaches, when they look at players, see strengths and weaknesses, and focus on the weaknesses,” said Sharp. "Quenneville was a coach that identified your strengths as a player and then put that player in a position to use those strengths to help the team.
"It sounds simple but not everybody did that or does that today.”
That mentality led to three Stanley Cups for the Blackhawks in 2010, 2013, and 2015.
Sharp played 11 seasons under Coach Q’s tutelage in Chicago after being acquired through a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2005, who had drafted him in the third round (95th overall) of the 2001 NHL Draft.
After being drafted, Sharp played his second collegiate season at the University of Vermont before reporting to the AHL’s Phantoms under Stevens in 2002 as a 20-year-old.
"If it wasn't for (Stevens) and the way that he coached me, I never would've made the National Hockey League," said Sharp. "I can confidently say that."
Stevens, current assistant coach for the Dallas Stars, had a great influence on Sharp’s development as a young athlete during his first professional season.
Being hard on his players isn't how Sharp would describe Stevens’ methodology.
"He challenged me in a lot of different ways," said Sharp. “At the time, it was difficult to deal with but I look back on it now and I needed that. I’m a better person and hockey player because of it.”
Admittedly, living alone as a rookie in Philadelphia may not have been Sharp’s finest decision. He would occasionally show up late for practices and, at times, imposed similar habits on the ice.
Stevens perceived it as a learning opportunity for the budding star.
“I look back at John Stevens as one of the best coaches I ever had because I think he saw something in me,” said Sharp. “Perhaps I was underachieving at that age and he felt that he could get more out of me. And he did.
“I owe a lot of my success at the NHL level to what Stevens taught me in my first three pro years.”
After graduating from the minors, Sharp was acquainted with Hitchcock’s Philadelphia Flyers and soon learned the rigours of the sport’s highest circuit.
“He’s a very demanding coach that wants you to play a certain way,” said Sharp. “The way he wanted me to play wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to play – but I did what I was told and tried to fit in as best as I could.”
Sharp is grateful to have learned what it means to stick in the NHL and maintain his longevity.
“To think that those are my first introductions to head coaching in pro hockey, Stevens and Hitchcock, I think it set the tone for the rest of my career.”