He is 26 and he is doing a terrific job. But it's no wonder that he wears suspenders: He has to keep up his image as well as his pants.
Gary Green became the youngest coach in the history of the National Hockey League on Nov. 14. Did he boogie the night away when he got the news?
Does he wear jeans to practice like the other guys? No way, he said, brushing a piece of lint off his brown tweed suit with the appropriately thin lapels. "The players," he said. "You understand."
Gary Green is a very mature young man, poised, self-possessed. But sometimes you wish he'd act his age.
Alan Hangsleben, one of four players on the active roster older than their coach, was traded to the Capitals in January.
"When I walked off the plane," Hangsleben said, "there was this little guy standing behind a trash can. I said, "This can't be the coach. Oh, no it is the coach.' He had his little coach's suit on. I think he even paints on his sideburns to look older."
How green is Green? "Gary is so young," said Pierre Bouchard, 31, "that the (Toronto Maple) Leafs brought back Carl Brewer (41) so that Gary could see him play."
Green laughs. "That's right," he says. His voice does not crack.
It says in the Bible that ". . . a little child shall lead them." But who knew it would take a baby-faced coach who never played a day in the NHL and who coached exactly 14 games for the farm club in Hershey to lead the once hapless Capitals out of the wilderness?
Other team talk about going with youth but this is ridiculous. Green nods his head knowingly. "The first time around the league, I was a novelty item," he says. "People wrote about the Kiddie Caps and the coach in diapers. My name wasn't Gary Green anymore. It was Youngest Coach, first name Youngest, second name Coach."
Green says he does not feel 26. Well, coaching the Caps will do that to you. When he took over, nine of his players were out injured (five still are). It was 18 days before he had his first win, 7-2, over Quebec.
Was there elation in the clubhouse? No, said Bouchard. "It was more like plop, plo, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is." b
Winning, of course, is the best tonic for any team. And the Caps are winning. They are unbeaten in their last six games, having won a record five straight before tying the Bruins Sunday night in Boston. They are currently tied for the last playoff spot with Detroit.
And now, after struggling on the ice and at the gate for so many sorry seasons, the Capitals are beginning to turn the town on to hockey. They have drawn 10,000 or more for 10 of their last 15 home games, and their average attendance in the second half of the season is up 1,600 a game over the first half.
Though Gary Green would be the last one to say it, he is a major factor -- perhaps the major factor -- in turning the franchise around. "He's done a (great) job," said Hangsleben. "He's got this team playing." So who cares if the coach is 26? So was Einstein when he published his theory of relativity.
In the beginning, Bouchard said, "The writers said, 'Let's go to the oldest players and ask how they feel about playing for a younger coach.' Then they went to the middle-age players and asked how they felt about playing for a coach their own age. Gary wasn't hired because of his age. He was hired because of his knowledge."
Green is "a mature hockey man," his players say, who earned their respect instead of demanding it. Like most coaches in the NHL, he is forever talking about his system. In hockey, you work within the system and you win; you play within the system or you don't play at all.
But Green also is a nonconformist. He bucked the system to get where he is today. "Not bucked it," he says, "bypassed it."
Max McNab, the general manager of the Capitals, who hired Green, says it was a radical thing to do. "adam was remarkable," McNab said. "The first in anything is remarkable."
Like most boys in Canada, Green, who grew up on a 200-acre farm in Tillonburg outside Guelph, wanted to be Bobby Orr, not Mr. Green Jeans. His mother wanted him to be a singer and he could have been. The boy coach achieved his first fame as a boy singer, performing at weddings and churches in front of as many as 500 people.
Maybe if they say pretty please, he'll sing the anthem one night at the Capital Centre.
Green was a juggler too: He juggled his schedule. At 16, he coached a team made up of 13-year-olds, officiated some games, and played in still others. In high school, he fit classes between lessons, hockey practice and band practice (he was the drummer in a group called Buck Rogers Rock Revival).
He crammed three years of college into two at the University of Guelph. "There was no time to book it," he said. He still wanted a shot at playing pro hockey and 23-year-old college graduates don't go that far in the pros.
He was 21 when he joined the Roanoke franchise in the defunct Southern League as a defenseman. "I'd been down there a couple of months struggling to hold onto a roster of 17 at the bottom of the minor leagues," Green said.
"I looked myself in the mirror, I was shaving, and I thought about some of the things I wanted." And some of the things he did not want: like being 35 and eating pregame meals in greasy spoons. "I had to admit I didn't have it," he said.
Out of work, and out of hockey, he applied for a job as the president of the Tam O'Shanter Hockey School in Guelph "as a lark."
They hired him. Two years later, he bought the company and merged it with Can/Am Hockey group, a company specializing in hockey camps, school and seminars. Can/Am now has branches in North America and Europe and takes in $1 million annually in tuition fees.
Green will not divulge his net worth, but it was enough, even in 1974. "I remember he arrived in Peterborough and wanted to work for nothing," said Roger Neilsen, former coach of the Peterborough Petes in the Ontarion Junior Hockey Association. "The team executives were suspicious about the guy, but I said he was okay, so he worked for nothing."
He worked as a paid assistant for the next two seasons, before becoming head coach in the fall of 1977. He told the club he was 25: his real age, 23. Captial defenseman Paul MacKinnin, who played for Green in Peterborough, said, "I never expected him to be here in just three years, coaching in the NHL. It's a kind of a fairy tale. But my last year there when he became head coach, he started to make a believer of me."
Green took the Petes to the Memorial Cup, where they lost in the seventh game.Greem was embarrassed. So that summer, he sat down and wrote postcards, little forget-me-nots, to his players every Friday afternoon: w"I'd say, 'Have a good summer. We have to be one game better. Think about it.'" (The same message, 'Think about it,' is scrawled on the chalk board in the Caps locker room).
Last year, the Petes were exactly one overtime better, winning the Memorial Cup in seven games.
McNab, who signed Green to a two-year contract to coach the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League, said Green had received six or seven offers like the one he accepted with the Capitals.
Bill Torrey, the general manager of the New York Islanders, said, "A lot of people were aware of him. Quite frankly, when you get up to 21 teams, there's not a lot of coaches around. They are coveted like good, young players. Certainly, Gary was coveted."
So no one around the league was surprised, Torrey said, when Green was named to succeed Danny Belisle in Washington.
Green and McNab deny that the promotion was spelled out in Green's contract. However, Green says, there was a provision that stipulated how much he would earn as coach of the Caps should he be given the job.
When McNab called him to make the officer, "there was no hesitiation," McNab recalled. "Gary said, "I'm ready.'"
"It took me two seconds to answer," Green said. "Well, maybe, actually, just one."
The next day Green held his first team meeting at a hotel in Boston. The team was losing (4-10-2) and everyone was thinking "the sky is falling." Green got up and said, "Hey, guys, the sky's the limit." And no one thought he was crazy. Because, after all, this guy has never even heard of a horizon.
Such confidence is sublime, admirable and perhaps even necessary in this position. But still didn't he stop even once to pinch himself and say, "Is this for real, is this happening to me?"
According to his wife Sharon. "One night after his first couple of NHL games, Gary came home and said. 'I watch those guys on television.' He really, was overwhelmed," she said.
"Gary's biggest problem is that he can't see over the bench," said goalie Wayne Stephenson.
Sure enough, in the third period of the Caps first win ever against the Bruins last week, there was Green, standing on the bench, one hand on the back of one of his players, leaning over to see what was going on in the corners.
All coaches lean on their players. But if you are 26, and have never been checked in an NHL game, and have a degree in psychology, you know enough to give your players the credit. "I don't like the word I." Green said. "I am only one of 20 here."'
That's what the players like about Green, he is one of them, a friend, as well as a coach. "He wants to be part of us," said defenseman Robert Picard. "Other coaches say, we won. I outcoached the other guy. Not Gary."
"He is like a brother to us," he continued. "I don't feel like a kid now. With some 45-year-old coaches, it's 'Hey kids, you have to do this.' But Gary treats us like men. If he gives you a hard time, he gives you a hard time, but he won't do it in front of anybody."
Bob Sirois, who had problems with Green earlier this season, said. "We worked it out. What I liked is that you can talk to the man."
But there also is the danger of getting too close, especially to the younger players. "I don't think some of them realize that if they don't do the job, they're going to get stepped on." Stephenson said.
"There's a fine line and I make sure to stay on the right side of it," Green said. "Lots of times I'd like to go out and party with them because they're my own age. But no way, I can't. I can take them out to lunch, or have a beer after practice, but only if I want to get something special across. It can't be any other way. I can't treat them like a father treats a son, either, maybe some older coaches can, but not me.
"I'm probably more open with them than other coaches they've had in the past. But I can't believe they don't distinguish the line. With most coaches, there is no line because there is no direct line of communication."
Green is, above all, a communicator. When he took over the club, many of the payers did not speak the same language. Green held a meeting and declared that English would be the universl language in the locker room.
"Right after the meeting, one of the gusy wasn't feeling to well and he was in the washroom sick to his stomach," Green said. "The sounds coming out of there wer just unbelievable. One of the guys yelled out, 'Hey, speak English.' It really broke the ice."
Green's second language is the language of sports psychology. He uses the word "motivation" as often as some people use "and." "Without concentration," he says, "you are just oout there waiting to lose." He believes that you can condition an athlete to be a winner, just the way Pavlov's dogs were conditioned.
"You don't do it through pellets," he said. "But I've often said, coaching is a pat on the head and a kick inthe butt."
"Is that playing upon emotions? Sure, of course. That's motivation."
And what motivates Gary Green? What makes Gary run?
"That's a good question," said his mother Margaret. "Maybe he just did not want to clean up pigeons."
"That's a good question," said his wife, who has tried to slow him down. "I can always tell when he's going too strong. He suddenly comes down with the flu and goes to sleep for 15 hours," hours."
"That's a good question," said Green. "There is an urgency in my body to get certain things done quickly. I even drive fast."
He doesn't like low gear.
But people who speed usually don't have much time for sightseeing. "I have friends outside of life, I mean hockey," he said, laughing at the slip. "There it is. Life is hockey. Hockey is 24 hours a day."
That does not leav much time for other things, like friends and family, and enjoying your own accomplishments. "I've been telling him that," said Sharon. "He always says, 'Next year,' and I laugh."
Two weeks before his wife gave birth to their first child on Feb. 1 (Jennifer Lee, 8 pounds, 3 ounces), Green held a team meetings. "Most people when they are having a baby, it's a pretty hair-splitting situation," said Captian Ryan Walter. "Things weren't going well and we were just about to go on the road.
"Gary got up and said, "Two things are improtant right now: our families and hockey. For our families' sake, hockey has to be no. 1. It was quite a thing for a young father to say. He told us our families would be better off if we made the playoffs, because of the money sitaution and so we wouldn't be grumpy all summer. It showed a lot about his character."
Bert Templeton, who coached against Green in juniors, was aksed if Green is driven. "It's more fair to say obsessed," he said, "because it's an obsession to be in the NHL and it's not always a rational thing to do a lot of times.
"In order to get there, the success has to come at the expense of something else; sometimes it's your family. You may do well in a series of games but you don't really enjoy it because it's in the past and you want to do more. I think most people like Gary are never going to enjoy themselves because there is a fear of looking bad, of failure,a feeling of wanting to acomplish more and more all the time."
Green says, "If I had to pinpoint anything I missed along the way, it's having made accomplishments and never taking the time to enjoy them. When we won the Memorial cup last year, I wished I had taken a week off and enjoyed it.
"I know the players did. They partied. I didn't. I had a company to run.
"Sometimes," he added, "you don't control your own destiny. Max talks to me about that.You get so caught up in the places you're supposed to be, you don't think to take the time to enjoy it while you're there."
And if you are already there at age 26, where do you go at age 30?
"Fishing, I guess," said Walter.
Green has a boat, a 27-foot Trojan. He still hasn't gotten around to naming it.