By Mike Greenlay
FS North Wild analystLike them or not, NHL shootouts are a reality, and any NHL team that does not practice them, at least occasionally, does so at its own peril. The Minnesota Wild approach this necessary evil in a rather unique way. For head coach Mike Yeo, it's score or else.
The punishment for an indiscretion such as finishing last in the shootout competition at the end of practice isn't as mundane as having to pick up pucks, skate laps or even bring everyone's extra sticks in from the bench. It's a whole lot worse. As Yeo quipped when asked how he comes up with the shootout penalties, "I have a sick mind I guess."From partial nudity and wardrobe malfunctions to follicular daring and Walmart greeters, Yeo will stop at nothing to motivate his players to treat practice shootouts with importance.
"I want us to practice with purpose," he said. "I don't want guys to just go down with nothing on the line and try their fanciest move. It's not something you would try in a game; it's not good for the goalies, and it's not good for themselves."
The Wild are 4-3 in shootouts this year and have employed various practice punishments such as ugly-tie boy, mustache boy, and ugly-sweater boy. These have become industry terms in the Wild dressing room.
On a road trip to San Jose, the Wild played strip-shootout, featuring players removing a piece of equipment every time they missed. There were helmetless, gloveless, breezerless and even bare-chested shooters by the time the ice chips stopped falling. The final two combatants were Colton Gillies and assistant coach Darby Hendrickson. Hendrickson had nothing but sweatpants left when a wardrobe-challenged Gillies mercifully ended the competition.
Nick Johnson, upon losing a shootout earlier this season, had to take his skates off and in full gear walk into the stands at Xcel Energy Center and shake hands and sign autographs for the 20 or more people who were watching practice. He definitely has a future as a Walmart greeter once he hits 65 years of age.Nick Schultz had a choice of buying lunch for the team or going with a faux-hawk hairdo for the remainder of a mid-November road trip. That would seem an easy choice for most because lunch can be pricey, but not when you consider that Schultz had recently completed a 10-month, hair-related ordeal with former teammate Brent Burns. The two decided back in January to see who could grow his hair out for the longer period of time. Schultz should have realized that you shouldn't get into the water until you learn to swim. To Schultz, it was a contest, but to Burns it was a lifestyle. Upon learning that Schultz had conceded defeat, Burns commented on his own hair saying, "I like it, I think I'll keep it". Schultz on the other hand said, "It's time for a haircut, I just want my life back."
Occasionally, a choice of punishment isn't given to the shootout loser -- like when Justin Falk was given his scarlet letter. He had to wear a festive Christmas vest for the entire pre-holiday road trip, complete with a blinking snowman broach.
This shootout motivation isn't a new concept to Yeo. From his playing days, he recalled what used to be dubbed juice-boy. Essentially, in a post-practice competition of some sort, the loser had to serve the winners an energy drink or water once back in the locker room. Yeo said that idea gained momentum during his tenure in Pittsburgh as an assistant coach.
"Certainly, in Pittsburgh, it was stepped up a notch, and seeing how much fun it was as well as how much of a team-building thing, but also how important it was. We became a team that was really good in shootouts."
Yeo used the approach last year while coaching the AHL Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup Finals. Former Aeros goaltender Anton Khudobin once had to stand outside the Aeros practice rink in Sugarland, Texas, wearing his full goalie gear and holding a sign that said honk if you're an Aeros fan. He had to remain there dancing and motivating passersby until six cars sounded their horns. Another unique humiliation technique was tagged spray-tan boy. The loser had to succumb to a spray-on tan, and according to Gillies, "He didn't look half-bad; we actually did him a favor."
Gillies wouldn't reveal who the shooter was, but he carried the handle "Spray" for the remainder of the year.Coaches motivate using various means, but Yeo has the Wild practicing the shootout with purpose, fun, team-building and occasional hazing. Makes you want to wear a vest, get a spray tan and comb your hair like a teenager.