Developing a Winning Culture
Steve Staios wanted a coach who fits the organizational values that he has established with owner Michael Andlauer, and a large aspect of job description includes being able to develop the personal character and identity. John Gruden has hardly a year under his belt as a head coach, so it’s quite the task evaluating his resume and his ability to develop a “character culture”. Was Gruden successful with his former roster?
During the press conference that the Bulldogs held on June 3rd to announce the hiring, TSN’s Mia Gordon asked Gruden about what he’s looking forward to about coaching in Hamilton, and Gruden really focused his answer on the environment around the team.
“It’s the ultimate team sport, and to get them all on the same page, it takes time. That’s the challenge. Once I get to really know them and understand them as young men, everyone is different. It’s not only knowing the Xs and Ox of the game, it’s really a small fraction sometimes of getting your team on the same page. It’s something that I think is one of my strengths and it’s something that I’m really looking forward to”. – John Gruden, June 3rd
It’s fair to say we saw the teamwork aspect out of Flint early. The team record was 7-9-1 when Gruden was fired, and had a few gutsy overtime wins within that record. Their overtime win over Oshawa November 7th was the product of every player working together to achieve the a huge win over the reigning Memorial Cup Champions. Gruden was fired after the game. Immediately afterwards their roster collectively tossed their jerseys and quit.
I take in a fair number of Ted Talks, and one of the best presenters on leadership is Simon Sinek. Sinek weaves a narrative about creating an environment of support in “Why good leaders make you feel safe” (Source), and the conclusion of the presentation is reminiscent of Gruden and the player walk out.
“We call them leaders because they go first. We call them leaders because they take the risk before anybody else does. We call them leaders because they will choose to sacrifice so that their people may be safe and protected and so their people may gain, and when we do, the natural response is that our people will sacrifice for us. They will give us their blood and sweat and tears to see that their leader’s vision comes to life, and when we ask them, “Why would you do that? Why would you give your blood and sweat and tears for that person?” they all say the same thing: “Because they would have done it for me”. – Simon Sinek
Obviously his players were willing to lay their careers on the line for their coach. They cared about him because that’s the culture he created, and he wants to do it in Hamilton. When CHML’s Luke Vermeer asked if Gruden would be informing Staios on which players would be a great fit on Hamilton’s roster, Gruden squeezed the caring aspect into his answer: “You know that’s a nice thing that I talked about, I really just want to coach, and have a say with what we do. Steve is really passionate and really educated on those players [throughout the league]. We will have those discussions moving forward. Obviously I care for those kids over in Flint, they’re good young men, and I’m sure, one thing at a time here, but we’ll do what’s best to make this team better”.
So who truly developed and flourished under Gruden’s care?
The best example is Ancaster native and draft eligible right winger, Nicholas Caamano. Caamano came into the season as a relatively unknown asset following a season where he struggled as a very young 16 year old with the fledgling Plymouth Whalers. Compare the 2014/15 season to his former teammate with the Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs, Brandon Saigeon, and you would assume that the younger Caamano should have spent the year developing in a Junior B league. One season later and the players flipped their careers in a 180° – Caamano was an invitee at the NHL Draft combine, and Saigeon is plotting how to bounce back after a disappointing season.
Caamano jumped 79 spots between the NHL Central Scouting midterm to final rankings, and now sits at 69th. This is despite mediocre stats, which seem to be indicative of the lack of ability the team had. In Caamano’s favour is his late September birthday. Jeff Krushell of Krush Performance has focused on the effect that birthdates have on the development of young athletes, and has shown there is a trend of players having a higher opportunity to excel when they’re born earlier in the year (Source).
Caamano has plenty of development time available and it was under Gruden that he began to blossom and make scouts take notice.
— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) April 24, 2016
— Kathryn Jean (@msconduct) January 9, 2016
There are rumours that a majority of the Flint Firebirds players wanted off the roster following Gruden’s first firing, and we saw an exodus of roster players who were already selected by NHL teams (Nedeljovic, Wesley and Chatham). With all of the dysfunction that surrounded his critical draft eligible season, you have to assume that Bitten had discussions with his agent about finding a new home in the future. His name has entered the conversation as a potential first round pick, and you have to wonder if NHL teams will be comfortable with him staying in Flint to develop, or if it will be better for him to develop under the watchful eye of Staios & Co.
Bitten: “Gruden was the best coach I’ve ever had.” #flintfirebirds
— Mark Scheig (@THWMark) February 19, 2016
Bitten has a history of being a winning player throughout his hockey career (most points in the OHL Cup, Gold Medal for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka). Steve Kournianos’ scouting report explains Bitten’s impressive season despite the Flint fiasco, as Bitten “dealt with a ton of adversity while serving as Flint’s captain and leader during its chaotic inaugural OHL season. To say Bitten carries his team is an understatement; he’s scored 30 goals on the team who averages under three goals a game. But there’s more to his game than offense, as he’s used in all situations and serves as Flint’s top option for both the power play and the penalty kill” (Source).
Every fan of the Hamilton Bulldogs have their fingers crossed that Staios is contacting former Bulldogs Head Coach George Burnett to ask about availability of the Flint players. Bitten and Caamano are who I believe would be the top two choices for this roster. Don’t count on the Bulldogs’ former bench boss giving Staios a friendly, rookie GM favour. Either of these players will have a costly price-tag.
Feature Image: Carlos Osorio / AP