How do you establish a new culture on a hockey team?

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As part of the NHL Coaches Association’s global clinic, Anaheim Ducks bench boss Dallas Eakins delivered a lecture on how to build an environment that will help players thrive.

Dallas Eakins|Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

How do you create a culture? That’s the challenge a new coach faces when joining a team, but it is crucial to success. Walk into any NHL dressing room and you’ll find slogans and credos inscribed on the walls – some teams even bring posters with them on the road so the message is always present. Behind those words are a team’s culture.

Dallas Eakins has taken over four different pro teams in his coaching career: the AHL Toronto Marlies, NHL Edmonton Oilers, AHL San Diego Gulls and most recently, the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. Eakins made a presentation this week on creating team culture as part of the NHL Coaches Association (NHLCA)’s Online Global Coaches’ Clinic, which is taking place this week. During his lecture, Eakins touched on the methodology he has used as a bench boss over the years and it was a fascinating talk to take in.

“Where the culture was good, we won hockey games,” Eakins said. “Where I failed, in Edmonton, we lost hockey games.”

Eakins very much seems to be a student of culture. He has spent time following around business CEOs, Navy SEALs and teams from different pro sports, such as the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Culture tends to have a ‘feel,’ and coach Pete Carroll’s Seahawks vibe really stuck with Eakins.

“It’s a positive, high-energy, almost fun experience,” Eakins said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a soft organization. They work extremely hard.”

The Seahawks always have music pumping and when Eakins was walking around with the team’s strength coach, players were constantly coming up and asking when they would get to lift. Not when they had to lift, but when they got to lift. It was an important positive distinction that resonated with Eakins.

This season was Eakins’ first with the Anaheim Ducks, a franchise that had fallen on hard times on the ice. When Eakins was hired to replace Randy Carlyle, one of his most important missions was to establish a new culture in Anaheim and setting the right tone was key, because it’s hard to undo early mistakes.

“I do encourage you to go in and plant seeds,” Eakins said. “Nurture them, water them, care for them and have patience with them. Grow it slowly, but in the same breath, grow it as fast as you can. Culture takes patience, dedication and discipline, but I greatly suggest taking this route of planting seeds along the way.”

While the phrase “buy-in” gets thrown around a lot in sports, Eakins actually prefers inspiration to motivation: as a former player himself, he never liked being sold a pitch by a coach. He did ask his new players what they wanted the key ideas of the new culture to be and the answers were communication and accountability. They also wanted more rest, so they could be more energetic. On top of being a West Coast team that flies a lot, the Ducks’ home of Orange County does not allow planes to land after 11pm local time, so any road trip return after that has to be in Los Angeles, which increases the travel time home after an already-late night.

The team also wanted to be harder to play against and they didn’t care who got the credit for wins. They wanted to bring back the franchise’s old winning ways and they wanted to hang out more together off the ice to give the squad a more family vibe.

With that clarity, Eakins and the Ducks could begin crafting that culture. Eakins established a more rigid work-day routine for the team and reminders of the squad’s newly-established values were put up at the rink and practice facility. In the dressing room, the words ‘Humble,’ ‘Hungry’ and ‘Hard.’ In the weight room, ‘Champions Do More.’

“If you read up on championship teams or top players, usually they’re doing more than everyone else,” Eakins said. “Even with their skill, they’re doing more and finding a way to get ahead.”

Though the Ducks have officially been eliminated from the 2019-20 season before the 24-team tournament even begun, this was only Year 1 of a new era in Anaheim. As Eakins continues to cement the team’s new culture, it will be interesting to see if the Ducks can get back to becoming one of the top squads in the West.