January 6, 2014

Fire and Ice: Personality Shift at Toronto's Head Coaching Spot

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

TORONTO — New head coach John Lovell rarely appears to get excited behind the Toronto Rock bench but he swears he does.

"I think I'm pretty emotional at times," he says.

Whatever, Lovell's demeanor during NLL games is a calming change from that of predecessor Troy Cordingley, the high-spirited bench boss now in Buffalo. Imagine Lovell with legs crossed on a yoga mat. Imagine Cordingley jumping onto the Bandits bench to scream at the referees. You get the picture. They have different personalities and have different styles of coaching.

Cordingley's effectiveness can't be questioned: Champion's Cup in Calgary and again in Toronto as the head coach and, before that, a title in Buffalo as an assistant coach. If anybody can turn things around in Banditland now, it is Cordingley.

It's just that the Rock opted, after four years of Cordingley and disappointing playoff losses the last two years, to take a fresh approach. He'd been named NLL coach of the year just a month before but they fired him anyway on May 31. They moved Lovell up from his assistant's role and inserted newly-retired forward Blaine Manning as coach of the offense. Former Rock defenseman Dan Ladouceur was brought in to coach the defense as Terry Sanderson relinquished that role to concentrate on his GM's responsibilities. Matt Sawyer and Pat Campbell returned as assistants.

The revamped coaching staff made its regular-season debut last Friday night and there were smiles all around after an impressive 16-11 win over the visiting Calgary Roughnecks. The offense moved the ball around quickly, every player got a touch, and there was plenty of creativity with effective picks and accurate passes to befuddle defenders. And the Rock defense was as good as ever.

"It was special,'' said Lovell. "The guys worked really hard for this. We didn't allow them to run on us. We did a lot of little things that led to that win.''

The coaches worked really hard, too. The players have great respect for the men on the rejigged staff. Manning and Ladouceur are former teammates of many of the Rock veterans, and everybody knew exactly what they were getting when Lovell was handed the top job.

"Passion and emotion are certainly parlayed differently through different people,'' captain Colin Doyle said. "Troy really wore it on his sleeve. That's who he was. We benefitted from that over the years.

"This is a different approach. John has as much emotion and passion. I think he shows it differently. Sometimes change is good. (Friday), change was good. We've got a long ways to go but that was a really good start.''

"This is a different approach. John has as much emotion and passion. I think he shows it differently."

— Rock captain Colin Doyle

Garrett Billings had a goal and nine assists. Like his teammates, he was happy to see Lovell come out a winner in his head coaching debut.

"Johnny is kind of born for this role,'' said Billings. ''He's coached for a long time so it's not a strange position for him. I think the biggest adjustment for him as the head coach is that you actually have less to do. The offensive and defensive coaches are controlling their platoons and you're overseeing everything. It'll be a little bit of an adjustment for him.

"He's a cool, calm and collected guy. I don't see any ranting or raving coming out of him. He's more into trying to motivate us on the bench.''

Lovell, 62, a retired school teacher, has been a lacrosse coach at various levels and in different leagues for 30 years. His tenure with the Rock includes the 2005 and 2011 championship seasons. It was time he got a chance to be a head coach in the NLL.

We asked him about his somewhat stoic poses in the heat of body-crunching battles on the floor.

"I think I'm pretty emotional at times,'' he said. ''People might laugh at that but, you know, I've got people on either side of me looking after things.

"If I need to be vocal, I'll be vocal, but I like to show the referees some respect. I don't think they need to be called names. Maybe somewhere down the line it will pay off for us. I'm not asking for anything. I just want everything to be fair.''

Jesse Gamble has evolved into one of the league's top transition players, and Cordingley gave him the playing time to earn that reputation.

"There are a lot of differences,'' he says of the Cordingley-Lovell comparison. "John was here last year so it's not like a 180-degree change. He had a presence and now it's amplified. We know what he's bringing. It's very positive. He's a players' coach. I think we're going to play well behind him.

"I think he knows how to use his emotions to get us emotional at the right times. He times it right. I think he'll be a great leader of our team this year.''

Ditto from Kasey Beirnes, who crashes creases from the right side.

"He makes everyone accountable for their actions and he has a way of telling you what he wants from you in a good way,'' he says of Lovell. "He's not bringing people down. There's always constant encouragement. He's about as calm as they get back there in difficult times and I think that's a really good approach for some of our younger players. It's really making them feel comfortable coming into this atmosphere.''

Stephan Leblanc scored five goals, Rob Hellyer three and Doyle and Josh Sanderson two each.

"Stephan Leblanc had an outstanding game,'' said Lovell. "Colin, as usual, played a solid game. Josh Sanderson . . . there are lots of things going on that sometimes you don't notice. Josh getting back one time and breaking up a play and 15 seconds later the ball is in their net.

When Calgary made a fourth-quarter push, nobody panicked.

"We have a good offense,'' Lovell said. "Sometimes they lose their way but (Friday night) I saw two or three of the best goals I've seen them score. They were on top of their game. We were in control. It was just a matter of our guys realizing: we're in control, look after the ball, play solid defense and we'll be fine.''

Doyle likes what he sees so far.

"It'll be a work in progress,'' he said. "We really didn't know what we were going into this.

''We only had a month together and there's a little bit of changeover. I think that win gave us an indication of what can happen if we play like that. It should give the coaches some confidence in what they're doing works and it gives the players the belief in them — that they know what they're doing — and I think that's really important early in the season.''


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