Laviolette does have a blueprint for success, though. He won a Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes and took both the Philadelphia Flyers and the Nashville Predators to the Stanley Cup finals.
Laviolette is about a third of the way through his first season in Washington and 19th as an NHL coach. And the Capitals (10-5-4) have a long way to go after an up-and-down start, one in which they have been unable to string more than two wins together since the end of January.
But they also have Laviolette, who always has managed to find success early in his tenures with teams. The 56-year-old from Franklin, Mass., knows what it takes to win, and for his former players, it starts with the demeanor of the coach himself.
“Lavi has a lot of success everywhere he goes for the first few years because everyone is buying into this new system, new attitude and how to fight and how to play hard,” said Scott Hartnell, who played for Laviolette on the Flyers and Predators. “Some coaches are too serious, keep their distance, whereas Lavi always wants to know who you are and your wife’s name, your kids’ names, and all that stuff goes a long way, in my mind.”
Laviolette’s strengths start with his abilities to communicate and motivate. He is described as a blunt coach, someone with a knack for figuring out how to push players and cultivate a family atmosphere. To Colin Wilson, who played for him in Nashville, Laviolette is the definition of “tough love.”
“Lavi has got an intensity to him,” said Brian Boucher, who played for Laviolette in Philadelphia. “He’s got that scowl, and he’s got a real presence in the locker room, and when he is speaking he’s got that growly voice and the Boston accent. He grabs your attention.”
Said Hartnell: “He is not fumbling over his words. He knows exactly where he is going and the buttons that need to be pushed in that dressing room. He does a great job of having everyone on the same page.”
Laviolette’s ability to gauge the temperature of the room to get everyone on the same page was crucial during his Cup run with Carolina. Laviolette came to the Hurricanes during the 2003-04 season, right before the NHL lockout. Initially, he rubbed players the wrong way.
“He was dealing with thoroughbreds, and he had to learn how to steer them instead of take out his stick and whack them. … The lockout was the best thing that happened to him,” said Bret Hedican, a defenseman on Carolina’s Cup-winning team.
Laviolette’s personality started to show after the lockout as Carolina started to gain confidence. He started the season with team bonding that helped him gain the trust of the Hurricanes’ leaders. He was blunt with players and let them know where they stood. But he also knew how to push them without overstepping.
There were days Carolina players felt as if they needed to be picked up after a disappointing loss or an unlucky stretch. Sure enough, Laviolette would stroll in and provide the much-needed mood booster through chats, speeches and videos.
Laviolette also could do the opposite — get on the team when its play wasn’t up to par or players were acting too confident.
“Sometimes we would be high on our britches, and I would be like, f---, we need to get our a-- handed to us today, and we need to be set in our place, and he would come in there that day and come down with the hammer,” Hedican said. “It was almost like he had his finger on the pulse of our group that year that I couldn’t believe.”
Laviolette likes to incorporate themes each year, and sometimes they come with prizes. This season’s theme was inspired by the Netflix series “Cobra Kai,” which Laviolette said he watched after he was fired by Nashville and spent time away from coaching.
“To some people that are super-cool, they might be like, ‘Oh, that stuff is corny.’ But if you set your ego aside a little bit and get to the kid inside of you, it’s fun and guys rally around stuff like that,” Boucher said.
Wilson remembered the first time Laviolette talked about giving out prizes. Players assumed he meant gift cards to a nice restaurant. Instead, they were toys — gag gifts.
Hartnell remembered one of the mystery prizes was a frying pan Laviolette bought on QVC. Another was a figurine that grew grass, Wilson said.
“It is hard not to like the guy,” Hartnell said. “... At the end of the day, he cares for you and he cares about the team, and that is what it is all about.”
Laviolette has also worked to include family members over the years. Multiple former players, including Buffalo Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams, said Laviolette was the first coach who got to know families off the ice and heavily involved them in team bonding activities.
“That was part of his strategy. You get to know someone’s family, you have that much more of a buy-in as people, so I think that is a way he did it,” Adams said. “I think he had a good grasp of each player.”
Daniel Brière, who went to the Cup finals with Laviolette in Philadelphia, remembers the coach also involved his own family during his tenure with the Flyers. Laviolette and his wife, Kristen, have three children — Peter, Jack and Elisabeth — but are empty-nesters in Washington.
“[We would] come in for a meeting, and the lines would be on one side, and Elisabeth’s drawing would be on the other side,” Brière said. “I liked it because it brings not just the coach’s side, it brings out that he is also a family man and he has a family and a regular life. It made him more human.”
Mike Fisher, who in 2016 was named Nashville’s captain, called Laviolette very “intentional, smart and intelligent.” Fisher said he had a lot of good coaches in his career but Laviolette stood out.
Fisher retired in 2017 before returning to the NHL in February 2018. He said he rejoined the Predators mainly because of Laviolette’s influence: “It was mostly, well, a lot of it was Lavi.
“He is not just a good coach; he is a good person, too, and I loved playing for him. And I was surprised they let him go [in Nashville last year], actually,” Fisher said. “I was really surprised, but that is just the game. It happens no matter how good of a coach you are. Yeah, I loved playing for him.”
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