The Long and Winding Road to Tampa Bay
What do you get after coaching hockey for more than 30 years in five different countries? For Lightning Assistant Coach Wayne Fleming, you get a lifetime of memories, two sons who can speak Swedish fluently, one who can also speak German, countless friendships around the globe and the respect of most everyone in the world of hockey.
Not bad for a start. Now add this:
An Olympic Gold Medal won at Salt Lake City in 2002, an Olympic Silver Medal won in France in 1992 and a World Cup Championship won in 2004. Also in 2004, as assistant coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, he came within one goal of advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals when Philadelphia fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games.
For good measure, throw in stints as assistant coach with the New York Islanders, Phoenix Coyotes, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Fleming also spent the 2008-09 season as the Head Coach for Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, where he became the first coach in hockey history to be benched by a general manager during a game, but more on that later.
That’s quite a resume for a guy who began with a one-year job coaching at the University of Manitoba in 1979, and exactly the sort of background that first-year Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher was seeking to round out his coaching staff.
“I needed someone with experience as well as an open mind and he certainly fits that perfectly,” Boucher explained. “He’s a smart man and great with details.”
Boucher, the youngest coach in the NHL at 39, had no qualms about working with Fleming, one of the league’s most senior coaches at 60.
“I knew he was a great fit within the first two days of camp,” Boucher said.
For his part, Fleming is equally pleased to be part of the organization.
“My integration here, with these coaches and the system, has gone very smoothly,” Fleming explained. “No question it’s been very rewarding and very challenging and very energizing.”
Of course, after all those years behind the bench for all those teams, Fleming has learned how to fit in and adjust. But surprisingly, joining the Lightning may be the easiest adjustment of them all.
“Guy has a very specific way that he wants the team to play but it is one that I was familiar with – it wasn’t totally out of the blue to me,” Fleming said. “It’s one that at various points of my NHL career I’ve tried to sneak a few of those things in. I support Guy’s system 100%. I had employed some very similar stuff when I coached in Sweden. It was an easy learning curve for me.”
For a more difficult learning curve, look no further than the one-year tenure Fleming spent as the head coach of Avangard Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.
“We were thee and a half hours east of Moscow in the middle of Siberia,” Fleming recalled. “Omsk has a million people and other than the players at the rink, I met two other people that spoke English. It was very isolated.”
And very strange. With his team trailing 1-0 but outshooting their opponent by more than 15, the team’s general manager told Fleming to watch the remainder of the game from the stands.
“I said, ‘as far as I’m concerned, I’m fired,’” Fleming explained. “He said, ‘No, no, you’re not fired, we want you to sit in the stands.’ So, I called my driver and I went home.”
The next morning Fleming returned to the rink and sat down with the GM, who then apologized and blamed stress for his decision.
“So, I was the only coach I ever heard of to get benched by a GM in the middle of a game,” Fleming laughed. “That was just part of the whole Russian package.”
During his time in coaching, Fleming has observed many changes in the game and the players, and most of them, he points out, are for the good.
“There is more direct interaction today between coaches and players,” Fleming noted. “I would say compassion; it’s more of a respect factor of what the players are going through. Under the older style coaches were sterner. They’d walk by a player and not say good morning, that type of thing. Now, you try to get a better feel for what the player as a person is all about.
“As long as you could explain to the players why you were asking them to do something, they’ll buy in,” Fleming continued. “Before, the players didn’t really think about it – they just did what they were told. That’s part of the job, to rationalize and explain what you’re doing as a coach.”
Fleming has lived a peripatetic lifestyle, but he has always been accompanied and supported by his wife, Carolyn, and a pair of daughters and sons. That sort of encouragement is not to be taken for granted.
“This is a tough business and it eats up a lot of people and throws them away,” Fleming explained. “I’ve seen families destroyed and individuals having a tough time recuperating. When I got into coaching a long time ago, my wife and I said we want to make as big a contribution as we can, but it’s also nice to control your destiny to some extent. If we feel it’s a positive personal and professional opportunity, then we have to consider that part of it.”
With that philosophy intact and a reputation that makes him a welcome addition to almost any organization, it’s fair to ask what moves still lay ahead for Fleming. To this end, Fleming has no doubt.
“When I talked to Steve (Yzerman) about this opportunity in Tampa I said, ‘this is my last NHL organization,’” Fleming said. “We’re not going anywhere and we don’t want to go anywhere. That’s my desire. We’ve accomplished some pretty unique things in this career from a family standpoint and professionally. Now it’s where we want to stop. We want to extend this opportunity as far as we can and hopefully get to the Stanley Cup.”
The Stanley Cup. Fleming has come close, but that elusive target is the last piece of an illustrious coaching career. Fleming freely admits that the Cup is what he has been chasing for most of his career. The chase has taken him and his family a long way, through many cities, and Fleming hopes the pursuit ends here, in Tampa, with this team, the Lightning. But even if the Cup eludes him again, Fleming has a legacy of coaching that will not be easily equaled.
“I think you always want to be judged by two things. The kind of work that you do and the kind of person that you are,” Fleming explains. “If you do the right thing, it’s respected and acknowledged. Even though you may be facing some tough decisions and a tough situation at times, as long as you do the right thing and the honest thing I think that continues to hold you in the proper esteem, so we’ve been fortunate that way.”
As Lightning Coach Guy Boucher will readily tell you, it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning that are the fortunate ones.