WILMINGTON -- Gordie Howe made an appearance. Mario Lemieux was there, too. Steve Yzerman, one of the best captains of them all, was dragged into the conversation a couple of times.
Just two weeks into the 2006-07 NHL season, and the crisis of a poor start parked on Dave Lewis's doorstep, the new Bruins coach summoned the names of some of the game's greatest to underscore his teaching points the last few days. None of those heavy hitters actually wandered into the permafrost chill of the club's practice rink in Wilmington, but Lewis referred to them all, constantly drumming home the point that his wobbly kneed, 1-3-1 team needs teamwork ahead of individual effort in order to pull itself out of a potentially disastrous start.
``He's not going to yell, scream, or rip guys," said Brad Boyes, one of the club's promising wingers, who hopes to be part of a more collective approach tonight when the Bruins take on the Flames in the home opener. ``It's more like he tells stories that have lessons in them. He'd rather make you think rather than just rip away."
Such was Lewis's studied, considered approach Monday morning inside Ristuccia Arena when he opened a 90-minute practice with a curious drill that lasted only about five minutes. A designated center was called to center ice, and the puck dropped, with the center left to fend for himself, and for his goalie, in a totally helpless 5-on-1 drill.
An exaggeration, to be sure, but the drill was also familiar. For their first five games of the new season, the Bruins were too often out of position and out of synch.
``At first I didn't understand what he was getting at," said netminder Tim Thomas, who, like Hannu Toivonen at the other end, became easy prey in the drill. ``The first thing that popped into my mind was, `OK, he wants to see if the goalie is going to work just as hard behind whoever the center is -- whether it's Phil Kessel or Zdeno Chara.' I was trying not to hang out anyone to dry."
Lewis soon whistled an end to the drill, called everyone to the sideboards, and made clear what he wanted the drill to convey. Play as one, he said, and the fight will be fruitless and brief. Work as a team for the next 77 games, as simple as that might sound, and the results stand to be remarkably better.
``Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe," mused Lewis, his temperament steady and unchanging as he addressed the media, ``as good as they were, I don't know if they would have gotten through to beat five or six players."
Lewis, like most every other NHL coach nowadays, wants an uptempo team that attacks and is tough to play against from start to finish. Thus far, for whatever reason, he has a squad that often is out of synch on the attack and is, like many Boston teams of recent vintage, not difficult to play against. The Bruins didn't score much in their first five games. Their physical game was anything but intimidating. Goaltending, though not Let-'em-in-Lacher-like, wasn't to the standard needed to win.
Despite the inconsistency and disconnectedness, Lewis keeps stressing that it will come together, in time. But with 7 potential points already frittered away, he is realistic enough to know that time is a dwindling commodity.
``The time is gone," he said. ``I think this [homestand] is a critical six games. You can't keep playing hockey games and not getting points, because if you keep doing that you are going to slide, and that slide could be too deep the first month of the season."
Stop the slide beginning tonight, said Lewis, or ``there could be some harsher decisions if things don't go well." In fact, rumors circulated the league yesterday that the Bruins are shopping veteran winger Glen Murray. No telling how the parts could change if the turnaround stalls.
Veteran center Marc Savard, acquired as a free agent over the summer, noted that Lewis, though even-tempered, hasn't been hesitant or vague about conveying what he wants. Savard worked under the emotional Sutter in Calgary, and Sutter, like his time here, didn't leave much open to interpretation. Lewis lacks the Sutter steely-eyed surl, but not the clarity.
``He still sends a message," said Savard. ``He just doesn't send it as -- well, I'm not sure how to say it, because he is still blunt. He came in the room the other day and, boy, he laid it out there. He doesn't kick chairs and throw crap. He just says it how it is, and he does it without raising his voice. He's kind of like a mad schoolteacher. He doesn't raise his voice, but he tells you how it's going to be."
Rest assured, said the likes of Savard and Thomas and Chara, the new coach -- though low key -- is not happy. Chara said he knows that even without hearing it out of Lewis's mouth. ``The eyes," said Chara. ``He doesn't have to yell. We know. One look in his eyes tells you he's mad. We showed what we can do against Tampa [the only win]. And we've shown it in other games, too. But we have to do it every shift, every night."
Lewis said he has steered away from it in the interest of casting a new team identity. If that new identity doesn't emerge soon, leaving Boston fans to say, ``Same ol' Bruins!", Lewis may have no choice but to summon the one thing that worked well in 2005-06.
``I've been reluctant to use it because it's a different team," he said. ``We have different personnel. It's a different team and a different year. That's the biggest reason. I want to establish continuity with everybody, not just three guys."
Nonetheless, asked if he considered putting them back together, Lewis said, ``Ohhhhhhhhh, yeah."
Only two weeks gone, and the 53-year-old Lewis must find the kick-start. To be head coach in the Hub of Hockey is never easy. If Lewis didn't know that from afar, he is beginning to find out now, and he'll know that for certain tonight and in the days ahead if yet another new approach delivers the same failed results. ``It hasn't been good enough," he said. ``As much as we are trying to have continuity, be upbeat . . . as much as we're new, we're fresh, we're energetic, and we've got some kids and we've got some veterans . . . "
As much as that is all true, the results must follow. Or not even Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, and Steve Yzerman will save them.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.