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Book Review: Behind The Bench - Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches

Chowder gives you the scoop on longtime hockey writer Craig Custance’s new release.

Boston Bruins v Vancouver Canucks - Game Seven Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If you are reading this, there’s a strong chance you are a hockey fan, and in particular most likely a Bruins fan. As a fan, have you ever wanted to know what was really going on behind the bench or in the locker room during the Boston Bruins Stanley Cup Final? Do you want to get a glimpse into how Claude Julien and other top coaches think and analyze the game?

Not a Bruins fan but enjoy watching the NHL? Just love the game of hockey and all the small but critical details that go into each game? If so, you are squarely in the target audience for Craig Custance’s (ESPN, The Athletic) newly released book “Behind The Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches”.

In “Behind The Bench”, Custance, a long time NHL writer previously with ESPN, after a decade at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and now signing on to run The Athletic: Detroit, provides his readers chapter sized backstories and breakdowns on some of the biggest names and biggest games in the NHL world.

Cover Photo: Used with permission of Triumph Books
Triumph Books - 2017

The book’s routine quickly becomes familiar as you move along it’s 256 pages, generally starting with the author introducing the reader to the new chapter’s coach’s background, along with any personal history the author may have with them from his decades covering the NHL. Once the reader is acquainted it’s time to throw in some often humorous anecdotes and descriptions of the efforts required to be a hockey writer working to nail down times and locations to meet with high profile, multi-millionaire coaches.

The locations of these meetings play a large but subtle role in staging the background and story of each coach, as well as the narrative Custance is trying to tell. For instance, Dan Bylsma’s chapter takes place in Bylsma’s plush and comfortable living room, a nod to the easy going reputation and approach Bylsma has long been associated with. When it comes time for longtime NHL coach Bob Hartley’s chapter, we find him working tirelessly at a youth hockey camp in between NHL positions, a theme that ties into his hard line, hard work and effort driven approach, an approach that has at times caused friction with everyone from players to owners to the fans in the seats. In Tortorella’s? A sparse conference room, some frank discussion and of course, a lot of four letter words.

Throughout, Custance manages to meet with, and devote a chapter to a collective who’s who of current and former NHL head coaches, primarily from the last decade or so. Some of the biggest names are those of Mike Babcock, Joel Quenneville, Ken Hitchcock and of course one Claude Julien, formally of the Boston Bruins organization.

Now for better or worse, any person who has ever talked to a Bruins fan for more than ten seconds has likely been subjected to varying opinions of Claude’s strengths and weaknesses. Saying he was a lightning rod in Boston probably doesn’t begin to reach the true depth of opinion fans, writers and even players alike have for Claude and his system.

Despite what you or I may think of his tenure and approach, it is hard to deny that the 2011 playoff run, culminated in an epic Stanley Cup win that ended a 39 years drought for the Black and Gold, was one of the greatest sports moments in Boston’s long history. In Behind The Bench, Bruins fans get a rare glimpse into what Julien, his players, and his staff were thinking as the series and games developed.

Primarily focused on the Stanley Cup winning Game 7 in Vancouver, but including info and stories from the lead up to that moment, Custance takes us inside what made the Bruins and their head coach tick.

Excerpt from Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches

“I don’t care if you’re a Hall of Famer or just traded to the team, your going to play our team game,” he says. “Making them understand there’s only one set of rules here, we should all respect that part of it. Maybe the first few years, you’re giving them a little bit more space than you should, you don’t want to ruffle feathers. You don’t have the same confidence. That comes with time.”

Then, Julien stops. He notices where the play is headed on the screen in front of us.

“Watch this goal here,” he says.

Brad Marchand, just as he did on the Bruins’ first goal, gets the puck along the wall and starts working, showing an ability to make plays in a tight space. He ends up sliding the puck up to defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who fires a shot from the point.

Luongo makes the save but there’s another rebound there for Marchand to pounce on. He does, picking up the puck and quickly skating behind Luongo for a wraparound. Marchand’s shot deflects off of a diving Luongo and it’s 2-0.

There’s 7:45 left in the second and the Bruins are up two goals. Marchand now had 10 goals in the playoffs, an unreal rookie debut.

“This is where Brad was so good around the net area,” Julien says, watching.

“This is him at his best.”

“Absolutely, he was so good. Watch him go to the net. He was so good at getting to those loose pucks around the net and being strong on it. He was so good in tight. Even off draws, he would just sneak in there, grab the puck, and score. He scored a lot that year that way.”

“Did you know what you had in him?”

“He was a good skater. What I liked about him was that he was a competitor. He was in everybody’s face.”

Marchand certainly showed that ability in this series. In Game 6, he grabbed Daniel Sedin by the jersey and punched him a good six times in the face without any retaliation.

When asked after the game why he did it, Marchand’s answer was simple.

“I felt like it.” Marchand said.

This excerpt from Behind The Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches, by Craig Custance, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information, and to order a copy please visit

The beauty in this book is that the coaches interviewed had a chance to drop their guard in a way most fans or even writers are usually privy to. There’s a unique value in getting to hear a coaches real thoughts, far enough after the fact that they aren’t worried about the next series, or guarding their words so as not to upset their opponent. To no ones surprise, Custance goes out of his way to interview and talk with various friends, former players and peers of each coach, in an effort to give a holistic view of who they are, not just as head coaches but as people. If there is a flaw to be found by most readers with Behind The Bench, it’s likely that each coach, and by association, team only has one chapter. Reading through it’s pages, “Behind The Bench” makes you want to dive into the details, the endless preparation and most importantly the emotional roller coaster played out on hockey’s biggest stages.

Stanley Cup of Chowder was provided with a copy of this book for review by the publisher.