As the final moments of the Washington Capitals Development Camp came to a close, I was able to sit down with Mark French, the Hershey Bears' head coach. French quickly progressed in his tenure in Hershey, from being named assistant in January of 2008 to head coach in 2009 after Bob Woods' promotion to DC. In his first year as the Bears' head coach, he lead the team to an AHL record 60 wins (123 points) and the teams' second consecutive Calder Cup. If you are not familiar with French, let it be said that his leadership and demeanor on and off the ice is second only to his abilities as a coach.
French was able to share his thoughts on the importance of Dev Camp, as well as explain what goes through the mind of a coach when players make the trip to don the red, white and blue.
Rock the Red: As the Bears’ head coach, how valuable is Development Camp, and the ability to see strengths/weaknesses of the players that may end up in Hershey?
Mark French: Well I think it’s important every year, this year maybe a little bit more-so. I think there’s some guys who played in South Carolina last year or even in Europe who probably need to be on our team this year. If it’s their first camp a lot of the American League coaching staff needs got to look at them and make their first impressions. Every year is important, but I think this year is maybe a little bit more high-lighted.
RTR: Do you feel that this camp helps to better prepare guys than those who sign as free agents or come on as trades that may not get this opportunity?
MF: I certainly think it helps them for training camp. Training camp follows much the same format as this camp. They get an idea of what the big things are so I think some of the guys who just come in straight from training camp from other organizations - they don’t have the same comfort with some of the stuff that we already do in Washington and so I think it gives them a leg-up that way.
RTR: How have the last two years been for you – winning the Calder Cup as both an assistant Coach and Head Coach?
MF: It’s been two amazing years and I think the one thing you point to when you talk about it is the little bit of anomaly that we were able to keep the team together for the most part for two years. You don’t see that very much in the American League, unfortunately, but this past year we were able to have 17 guys returning, which you don’t see. And they were a real special group of guys and the biggest negative is that you know things are going to change because they have to. As a coach, it was a special 2 years and there’s a lot of fond memories of the guys I shared it with.
RTR: Whenever anyone talks about how special the Bears have been the last two years, the recurring theme seems to have been the chemistry of the team. With all of the players that have departed as well as the list of new guys coming in this year, do you feel that you’ll have to work harder to get the team together for the upcoming season?
MF: Definitely. It’s going to be a different group. You know the one thing is that we don’t want to defend the Cup, we just want to win it again. I think there’s a big difference between the two – we have a different group of guys. Chemistry will probably take a little bit more time this year than last year. Our philosophy hasn’t changed. We’re recruiting players with good character, and it will be interesting to see how they all mesh together.
RTR: When a player gets called up to Washington, how does the mentality of the rest of the team change?
MF: I think that’s the toughest part- whether its guys going up or guys coming down. I think when you see a guy go up, obviously there’s always two or three other guys that feel that they could’ve went up and had the same opportunity and there’s a little bit of disappointment. I think that’s one of my biggest jobs is to kind of anticipate those situations where guys will be disappointed and jump in and maybe give them some reinforcement of why it happened and go over what they need to do to make it happen for themselves. Then when guys are sent down, individually, it’s a little bit harder on them and you have to step in and refocus them. It’s probably the biggest part of the job at the American League level.
RTR: How difficult is it to adapt your game plan when you lose a player to a call-up situation?
MF: We have to have really good flexibility because we don’t have the consistency of being able to put the same lines together and the same pairings together. I think one of the strengths with Hershey last year was that we were able to do that probably more than other teams. Everybody has to be ready to play in all situations. You know you see a lot of organizations where a guy may not start as a power player or big minute guy but when other guys get called up, he’s got to be able to step up and grasp that opportunity, and ultimately, that’s it.
RTR: As a coach who just came off on an unbelievable season – are there any goals left to set for yourself for the upcoming season?
MF: Oh yeah. We’ll have a different group, and the biggest thing you mentioned is the chemistry and getting them to play as a team like our team did last year. For the last two years actually, and they were willing to pay the price for each other and that was the difference of winning a championship. So the challenge now is to get them motivated and to get them to come together.
RTR: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us – anything else you’d like to add?
MF: No… Can’t wait till October!