World junior championship: Coach Steve Spott brings focus, fun to Team Canada

When Steve and Lisa Spott moved to their new home in Michigan, Steve’s father, Martin, gave them some seeds to plant. The seeds were for one of the elder Spott’s prized plants, a beautiful Rose of Sharon bush.

Spott was working as an assistant coach to Peter DeBoer, with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers. A good friend of DeBoer, Spott offered some of the seeds to the head coach’s wife, Sue.

She went out, bought soil and pots, to help the flora grow. Spott convinced her that the seeds had already been planted and everything was good to go.

Sue DeBoer waited. Nothing happened.

“We had heat lamps going on it, we bought special plant food,” said Peter DeBoer, now the head coach of the New Jersey Devils. “We were continuously watering, but we couldn’t figure out why we were getting nothing.”

They were getting nothing because Spott was pulling one of his many hilarious, nefarious pranks. The pots were seedless.

“For six or seven weeks, Sue was watering soil,” said Spott with a laugh. “She went out and bought special halogen lamps because she would come to my house and see my plants starting to grow. Finally, I had to come clean. Pete was so mad at me because he was watering soil, too.”

When it comes to pulling practical jokes, the head coach of Canada’s world junior squad enjoys as much success in pulling one over on his family and friends as he does guiding teenaged hockey players.

So, what’s the best Steve Spott story?

“Oh my God, how many hours do we have?” said Team Canada assistant coach Andre Tourigny, who first coached with Spott when both were assistants for the 2010 world junior team. “I have a few.”

In 2008, there was the April Fools’ prank in which Spott and DeBoer went on a Kitchener radio station and told the listeners the Memorial Cup had been cancelled because the title sponsor had dropped out.

People believed them and the story went viral.

“That got ugly,” said Spott. “It got to the point where the mayor (of Kitchener) and everybody was calling in to the radio station. That was the most evil.”

In Kitchener, where he’s head coach of the Ontario Hockey League Rangers, Spott’s staff is accustomed to locking their cell phones and computers every time they leave them unattended in the office. Even a quick trip to the washroom is enough time for Spott to log onto a computer and send emails to various people with the message: “Call me. It’s urgent!”

“It’s full-on paranoia,” said Kitchener assistant coach Troy Smith, when it comes to leaving Spott alone in the coaches office. “There are probably too many pranks to mention, and some of them I don’t want to admit to being a victim of.”

Unlike some of his world junior predecessors who have come across as cold, stoic or even adversarial with the press, Spott is funny, warm and friendly. He loves Mustang cars and is a big fan of retro New Wave music. Depeche Mode, New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen are among his favourites.

In his scrums with the media he often makes a point to call each reporter by name when answering questions. During camp in Calgary he told one: “If you get arrested in Russia, call me -- I’ll bail you out.”

Most coaches would rather provide journalists with directions to the Gulag.

“There’s so much stress in what we all do,” said Spott, who faces the tall order of trying to bring Canada back the gold at the world junior championship. “I think laughter is the best medicine and I’m a big believer in that. So, anytime you can make your players smile and laugh or your staff, I think that’s important because we’re all under the same amount of stress.”

Don’t be fooled by the seedless-soil and computer pranks. There is a serious side to Spott. He’s a self-described details freak who hates micro-managing. He’s hard-working, ultra-competitive and focused.

“When it’s time to get down to work he’s very serious and he’s well thought-out,” said Smith, who has put some of what he’s learned from Spott into his ancillary position as the head coach of Ontario’s under-17 team. “He’s a very good communicator and he’s open to people discussing their opinions and their thoughts. They might not always like what he has to say in return, but he’s always fair, honest and up front.”

Long before Spott was paid to coach junior hockey’s elite players, he was working as a substitute teacher in an elementary school. It was there he learned the fine art of negotiation.

“I used to bring Barbie cards and hockey cards into the class,” said Spott. “I’d let them know that at the end of the day the most pleasant student would walk home with a gift.”

These days, Spott is still teaching, though his students now are a little older and have their eyes on a different prize.

“Those Barbie cards and hockey cards have become ice time,” said Spott. “It’s still a reward system. It’s funny but you still have to have that in your bag of tricks.”

His teaching background helped him, particularly as a communicator, when he decided to make the move to full-time hockey coach 16 years ago. His first real opportunity came when DeBoer brought him to Plymouth.

“That’s what we are. We’re teachers,” said DeBoer, who coached with Spott for 11 OHL seasons. “You have to be able to get that message across to all kinds of different personalities using all different kinds of resources … it’s the most important factor in coaching nowadays and he’s very good at that.”

DeBoer and Spott, who shared a Memorial Cup title in 2003 with the Rangers, met through mutual friend Adam Graves. The former NHLer grew up with Spott in North York, Ont., and played junior hockey with DeBoer in Windsor. Spott, Graves and fellow retired NHLer Glen Featherstone played hockey in the winter and soccer in the summer growing up in the north end of Toronto.

Spott started playing house league hockey for the Toronto Olympics at St. Michael’s Arena and as soon as he set foot on the ice, skating came naturally.

He eventually landed a hockey scholarship at Colgate University. Spott was a standout for the Raiders, leading them to an Eastern College Athletic Conference title in 1990 and a berth in the NCAA’s National Championship final (they lost to Wisconsin 7-3 at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena). There was a short pro career in the minors, but that was as far as Spott’s playing career went.

Spott, now 44, and Lisa met when they were teenagers working at Seneca College over the summer – he at a hockey school and she at a gymnastics camp. He was already friends with her older sister, Brenda, so they started hanging out together long before they began dating.

“You can just feel it with him, that he’s going to be successful in whatever he does,” said Lisa Spott. “I was always enamoured with that quality – that he was so certain and so driven. You always trusted him because he was always so certain about what he was doing.”

At home in Waterloo, Ont., Spott is a doting dad to Tyler, 12, and Emma, 10. Spott’s wife admits there are times when her husband’s job seeps into their everyday life.

“Even at home he’s a great delegator,” said Lisa, a registered dietician at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kitchener. “There’s also the team dynamic, so when it’s garbage day, it’s like, ‘OK everybody…’ and it doesn’t really need to be a team event. It’s just interesting that he approaches life like that. Everybody gets involved and everybody is a part of it, and that filters into his life.”

Family is No. 1 with Spott. So, coaching on the world junior stage is bittersweet because he’s not sharing the experience with his father, Martin, who passed away in 2007 at age 75. It was Martin Spott who encouraged his only son to always follow his dreams and to grow like the beautiful flowers to which he tended.

“I can only hope I’m half the man to Tyler and Emma that he was to me,” said Spott. “It’s tough because I’m sure at some point during this journey, I’ll be reaching up there and asking him for his help.”

Lisa, Tyler and Emma won’t be making the long trek to Ufa for the tournament which begins Dec. 26. Lisa admits she might not be wide awake for all the 4 a.m. ET, starts, but that won’t change much. She’ll still be rooting – nervously – for the coach, partner, parent and prankster guiding Canada’s medal hopes 11 time zones away.

“I’m just so proud of what he’s been able to accomplish. Sometimes you don’t get a chance to say that very often when you get caught up in the day-to-day stuff.”

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
Email: | Twitter @Sunayas

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