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Yeo: From shaky status to firmly entrenched

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By Tom Powers

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Even Mike Yeo has to shake his head a little bit. Five months ago, he was this close to being relieved of his duties. Today, he has a lucrative, new, multiyear contract safely tucked in his back pocket and is highly respected around the NHL after a solid playoff showing by his Minnesota Wild.

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“When my job was on the line in December and the beginning of January, I still believed in this group,” Yeo said. “And that was my message to them: I knew we could still take it to the next level.

“In my own mind, I believe I have to keep proving myself. But I do believe I took some big steps.”

Well, he did. He finally got the whole team on board with his style of play. And the results were impressive. But he also stepped up and delivered what I thought was a very classy performance during the playoffs. Wild fans will recall that the team was butt-ended by a number of unlucky breaks, bad calls or no-calls that cost them a couple of games. That includes two offsides that weren’t whistled down and eventually resulted in game-changing goals.

Instead of whining and generally carrying on about the misfortune, as most coaches tend to do, Yeo attempted to minimize their long-term effects: OK, stuff happens in the playoffs. We have to go forward.

As a result, his players adopted the same attitude. Instead of lying on the dressing room floor and attempting to open a vein after every bad break, the Wild followed their coach’s lead: We’ll get ’em next game. Bad officiating and bad luck were acknowledged but not dwelled upon. It was a solid, mature approach for a team that had little playoff experience.

Yeo recently returned to the Twin Cities after a fishing outing with friends in his native Ontario. There were about 20 folks popping in and out of the cabin there, and Yeo is quick to admit it probably wasn’t the most fun he’s ever had. He enjoyed the company. But as each new person joined the group, there was a steady barrage of hockey questions, particularly about that last game and “The Bounce.”

“I wasn’t really ready to talk about it,” Yeo said. “I noticed that three days after we were done, I was just exhausted. I actually slept through the night, and I never sleep through the night. I usually dream about hockey.”

Wait. What?

“Yeah, it depends on what’s going on,” he said. “Sometimes it’s really weird stuff.”

Like the other team breaking out on a three on one with only Dany Heatley back? Or one too many forwards jumping over the boards and your arms suddenly are dead and you can’t grab him?

“Crazy stuff,” Yeo said.

The most surprising element of the playoffs, Yeo noted, took place off the ice. Yeo said he was taken aback by the magnitude of his media responsibilities. The NHL, in an effort to promote its playoffs, mandates that coaches regularly attend news conferences.

“Two or three times a day!” Yeo said. “That part is unbelievable to me. What are we going to talk about now? There’s nothing left.”

Hey, Mike, try writing something two or three times a day when there’s nothing left.

“But I understand because, really, that was the most exciting part of it all: How our fans reacted,” Yeo said.

The bottom line is that coaches need time to develop, just like players. That’s why so many coaches in the NHL do better the second time around. Todd Richards is an example. The Wild stuck with Yeo as he developed. Now he has a new contract, officially announced on Saturday, and deservedly so.

It was close. After six straight losses in regulation, the Wild played host to the Buffalo Sabres, the worst team in hockey, on Saturday, Jan. 2. Had the Wild lost, Yeo would have been replaced before team left on a road trip the following Monday. But Minnesota won and then reeled off two more victories. That bought time.

On March 30 and 31, with a playoff spot on the line, the Wild won at Phoenix and Los Angeles. Yeo calls that the real turning point. Trailing in both games, the Wild stuck to the system — no freelancing — and came back to win. Buoyed by the results, everyone suddenly was on the same page, setting the table for their solid playoff performance. It was as if, finally, everyone came to an agreement that Yeo’s way was the right way.

“I give a lot of credit to the players for the way they responded,” Yeo said.

It took awhile, and there were plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. But now he’s firmly entrenched as coach of the Minnesota Wild.

The Pioneer Press is in a media partnership with Forum News Service.

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