Peter Laviolette stood at the podium Saturday for a post-practice interview donning a blue quarter-zip, gave a slight smile and appeared almost unwilling to talk about his looming milestone.
Laviolette, in his second season as Capitals coach, is one win away from No. 700 in his NHL coaching career, which would tie him for ninth in league history with Mike Babcock. Of the coaches in the top 10 in wins, Laviolette has a better points percentage than five of them. Only two others – ex-Capitals coach Barry Trotz (New York Islanders) and Lindy Ruff (New Jersey Devils) – are currently active.
But on the eve of his milestone, Laviolette shunned introspection. There are two decades’ worth of memories from five NHL teams to sift through if he wants, including the 2006 Stanley Cup he won with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Instead, he was more concerned about an early afternoon game against the Ottawa Senators less than 24 hours away.
“We’ve got a home game, we haven’t been doing so well at home and we’ve got to straighten that out — so I’d be really happy with a win for us at home in front of our fans, but I guess not necessarily for that reason,” a chuckling Laviolette said. “The milestones, they happen. I’ve worked with great players and great coaches along the way, so I’ve been really fortunate.”
For any coach, especially one in his 20th season as an NHL bench boss, it felt like the scripted answer before a historic victory. But Laviolette didn’t have to say anything about what 700 wins will mean to him or how being in such elite company defines his career. The numbers do that just fine. He can keep his focus on the day-to-day.
“For me, you don’t really look at those numbers too much,” Laviolette said. “I think for any coach, you look more at the team and how the team is doing and trying to find success on a nightly basis. If you can do it long enough, then I guess things start to hit milestones.”
Aaron Ward remembers his first year with Laviolette vividly. It’s because he didn’t like him very much.
Ward was already a seasoned, veteran NHL defender when Laviolette took over as coach of Carolina in the middle of the 2003-04 season. But the two had a conversation Ward wasn’t thrilled to have — he needed to lose 15 pounds.
“The reason why my career lasted as long as it was, was that he took a hard position with me that ‘the game’s changing in 2005-2006, you’re not going to play on my team if you don’t drop 15 pounds,’” Ward recalled. “And my first initial reaction was ‘What an asshole.’”
A lockout was coming that erased the 2004-05 season. The game was faster when the NHL returned to play, referees more strict. Laviolette knew his players would need to adapt to keep up. And to say it worked for Ward, and for the Hurricanes, would be an understatement.
Ward had the best offensive season of his career with 25 points in 71 games. The Hurricanes improved from the worst goal-scoring team in the league in 2003-04 to the third-best in 2005-06. That year the Hurricanes won the Southeast Division during the regular season, took the Eastern Conference as the No. 2 seed and won the Stanley Cup in a seven-game series vs. the Edmonton Oilers.
“[Laviolette] made me earn it by simply starting me in my first NHL game with him that year at forward,” Ward said. “It was a humbling experience that still there’s more to earn. I ended up from that experience having the best year of my entire career because I was playing for a coach that, even in my 30s, didn’t let me rest on my laurels and made me think outside the box.”
The lesson Ward learned, as many have said, wasn’t a one-off. There was, and is, a method to what Laviolette says and preaches. He doesn’t play mind games, nor does he try to make players second-guess themselves. Whatever he’s feeling — good, bad or otherwise — players are sure to hear about it.
“He’s direct,” Capitals winger Carl Hagelin said. “He knows when to be pissed off and when he doesn’t want things to snowball. He’s pretty good at getting a good feel of what’s needed in the locker room and what needs to be said, and if he needs to be pissed off or just leave it to the players.”
Laviolette has alluded to those conversations a few times throughout his tenure in Washington, and players have in turn as well. After wins, losses, hot streaks and cold streaks, they know what’s coming.
“I think the best coaches I’ve had wear their heart on their sleeve a little bit, they’re compassionate about it,” Capitals center Nic Dowd said. “All the way from the top line guys to the bottom line guys, the younger guys and the older guys, they know where they stand with him. There hasn’t been a day where I come to the rink, personally, where you don’t know what’s coming.”
The often blunt critiques, though, are never meant for anything other than the improvement of the player and the team.
“I think he’s honest to the player,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “He loves hockey, that’s the most important thing. He wants to win, he wants to be a champion. He’s that kind of person.”
In the long-run, as Ward noted, those conversations pay off. But what makes those talks work, he added, is that Laviolette understands where his players are coming from.
“One of the things when you feel understood – which is a natural human desire, is to be understood – you’re generally less closed-in and more open to hearing what other people have to say,” Ward said. “And that’s what Lavy does. His hard message usually is received by players because Lavy’s already done the work to get to know you. And it’s not a place of love, but he cares because you matter and you understand you matter to him.”
Laviolette joined the Capitals at an odd time in franchise history.
The world was in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic when he was hired in September of 2020, limiting Laviolette’s ability that first season to meet some of the players’ wives and families or even people who worked for the organization.
A franchise in the backstretch of the Alex Ovechkin era, with at the time 12 playoff appearances in 13 years, three Presidents’ Trophies for the NHL’s best record in a season and the Stanley Cup championship in 2018, needed to make the most of its star captain’s final years. Laviolette had a difficult task in front of him. But he’s always met those challenges before with the Cup in Carolina and Stanley Cup Final appearances with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 and the Nashville Predators in 2017.
“He has a vision of how he wants his teams to play,” said longtime assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, who has coached with Laviolette’s since their days together in Carolina. “It doesn’t matter what team it is, he has this vision: He wants to play a fast hockey game when you have the puck. The one thing that kind of goes by the way sometimes is that they see Lavy as an offensive coach that preaches offense, which he does. But at the end of the day, he really preaches defense first.”
But beyond the schematics of his forecheck or neutral zone gameplan, Laviolette ultimately wants his teams to be more than just what fans see on the ice.
“The one thing that I’ve learned from Lavy, when we first got together I didn’t know him, he really felt that if you were a tight group off the ice, that it was going to dictate how you played on the ice,” McCarthy told NBC Sports Washington. “He really tried to involve everybody from the players’ spouses to their families to their kids. He really wanted it to be a team thing both on and off the ice. He felt if your team is strong off the ice, it’s only going to help you on the ice.”
COVID-19 impacted that in Laviolette’s first year in Washington, but Ward remembers Super Bowl parties in Carolina and preconceived notions about coaches that Laviolette broke down rather quickly and in a unique way only he could do.
“He has an amazing way of handling everyone, from the coaching staff to the training staff to the medical staff. He treats everyone important,” McCarthy said. “To him, nobody is below him, nobody is above him. He treats everybody like he would like to be treated himself.”
There is, clearly, a natural desire to win. And through two decades of coaching in the NHL, Laviolette has proven time and time again that he can.
In each of his four previous stops with the New York Islanders, Hurricanes, Flyers and Predators, he’s left with more wins than losses. Through 1,315 games coached, he has a record of 699-454-137 (along with 25 ties). He also ranks 15th on the playoff coaching wins leaderboard with 76 thanks in part to those three Cup Final appearances.
Laviolette’s motivational skills, paired with his Boston accent, are well-known. So, too, are the times he’s taken over a team and left it in a better place.
“The realization was that there’s very few coaches that you play for that you would go through a wall for, because he would tell you that that’s how you win,” Ward said. “And you would believe him, and you would do it.”
It’s clear that whenever the Capitals win again and Laviolette earns his 700th career victory, there won’t be any bragging, or really much more than congratulations from players current and former about the milestone. After all, Laviolette said, it’s not a number he particularly pays attention to.
Seven hundred wins, though, is historic for someone who is already the winningest American-born coach in NHL history and shows no signs of slowing down just yet.
“We’re going to be happy for him, obviously,” Ovechkin said. “He’s had a long career, he’s been a champion. He knows how to win, he loves the game and we’d be happy for him.”
The end goal is not individual coaching milestones for Laviolette, but rather what the Capitals do during the Stanley Cup playoffs this year and in the coming years. He was brought here to keep a veteran team going. He has a long track record of doing just that.
But whenever No. 700 comes, whether Laviolette publicly takes pride in it or not, he’ll have a lot of people in his corner that will.
“He’s treated me so well as a friend and as a coach and given me a lot of responsibility along the way too,” McCarthy said. “For me, it’s nice to see good things happen to good people.”