Triumph Books

Behind The Bench

Craig Custance, editor-in-chief of The Athletic Detroit and writer for The Athletic NHL, is the author of Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey's Greatest Coaches. The book -- here's an excerpt -- is a compelling look at leadership, motivation and human nature, and it is presented in a unique way. Custance wrote it based on his discussions during one-on-one film sessions with the likes of Mike Babcock, Joel Quenneville, Claude Julien, Ron Wilson and Ken Hitchcock on defining games in their career.

ThePostGame: I love this quote in the book from Mike Babcock: "You've got to create value for yourself. Figure out a way to create value. Are you the best penalty killer? Are you the best faceoff guy? Figure out a way to do it and go do it yourself." What's an example of this in your own career?
CRAIG CUSTANCE: Oh wow, a little self-analysis right off the hop. This is important advice in the world of sports journalism where there is a ton of content. It's even more important when you're writing for a subscription-based operation like I did at ESPN Insider and now at The Athletic.

Craig Custance

I've tried to create value for readers in a couple of ways. When doing analysis, I try to offer a complete picture through multiple avenues -- including analytics, voices inside the game and primary interviews. If I'm doing a takeout on one of the players, my hope is you read a story or two you've never heard before. My goal is that readers learn something new about whatever subject I'm tackling, in every piece I write.

TPG: Babcock says he is a big believer in changing careers every 10 years because it's a way of getting better. You hadn't been at ESPN quite that long, but how much of your decision to leave was influenced by this school of thought?
CUSTANCE: I don't think that it's a coincidence that I finished the process for this book at the same time I made a fairly dramatic and risky career change. I was at ESPN for six years and had a very fair offer to extend it beyond that. There's no doubt that I was influenced by the reporting of this book and watching the payoff that came when these coaches took on risk in pursuit of a big goal. My guess is I'd still be at ESPN if I hadn't written this book.

TPG: Which coach changed your perception of him the most after you spent the day together for the book?
CUSTANCE: John Tortorella. I only knew Tortorella through the lens of media scrums and press conferences and that's not a great place to evaluate him as a person. To say the least. I wasn't crazy about the Blue Jackets hiring him, a stance we talked about that day. I left with a completely different opinion. He was thoughtful, introspective and I left believing that the public perception of him is completely different than the actual person.

TPG: What's your favorite hockey book? Why?
CUSTANCE: Ken Dryden's The Game is the default answer. It's the best by a country mile. But I really enjoyed The Boys of Winter, Wayne Coffey's book on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. That team has impacted the hockey in the U.S. more than any other and I was too young to live it in real time. This book helped fill in a lot of gaps for me. The hockey nerd in me also really liked Hockey Plays and Strategies by Ryan Walter and Mike Johnston, a book that dives into the Xs and Os.

TPG: Some writers start with an outline, then work the details into that framework. Some crank out as much as they can, then tinker, trim and hone. What's your writing process?
CUSTANCE: This was my first book, so I'm not sure I have a writing process. Maybe I'll develop one over time. But in this case, my focus was on reporting it as deeply as I possibly could before writing a word. This was a bit of a logistical nightmare, where most of the game viewings with the coaches fell into a two-month span in the summer. I wanted to be as prepped as I could possibly be for each film session, so there were a lot of interviews with the people around the coach heading into each one. Then after we met, there were phone calls to players and other sources to talk about what the coach said.

Reporting it out was a bit of a rabbit hole -- I could have reported this until the end of time. Eventually I had to cut it off and start writing because I had a deadline closing in.

I wrote the book in about three months, banging it out at the public library near my house, a few thousand words at a time each day. I ended up with 110,000 words that I trimmed back to around 85,000. I’m not sure that was the best strategy but that's how it worked out.

TPG: Don't want to be a spoiler here, but it's probably fair to characterize this one anecdote in the book by saying you got some very practical consumer advice from Brent Burns. This just underscores the premise that hockey players are the most down-to-earth athletes. Can you share another example of this from your career that you didn't cover in the book?
CUSTANCE: Brent Burns is a national treasure.

I can't speak for other sports because a majority of my career has been immersed in the hockey world, but a big part of being able to tell great stories is because of a buy-in from the players. They make themselves available and when there's a trust established, they are great about opening up.

Another good example would be a story I wrote about John Scott last year for ESPN. I sent him a text to see if he would be interested in doing a story one year after his crazy All-Star experience. A few days later, we're grocery shopping together, picking up his kids from school and grabbing lunch with his family in a great little Traverse City restaurant. Can't get more down to earth than that.

TPG: Going back to your Atlanta days here. Just curious: Could the Thrashers have made it work in that city if the ownership had been, shall we say, less dysfunctional? Any scenario in which the city would get a third shot at the NHL?
CUSTANCE: I'm an Atlanta hockey defender. The team was mismanaged for long stretches of time and had an ownership group that wasn't interested in hockey. It all starts at the top and if that isn't strong, it's going to be a disaster. There are few American cities that could effectively survive a decade's worth of bad hockey without a single playoff win. Let alone a market in the South. Even Chicago and Pittsburgh struggled to draw when the product was bad.

So, to answer your question, yes, hockey could have worked in Atlanta had the Thrashers built the right way and developed into a winner. There were enough hockey fans there to make it happen. They just never got that shot.

And no, I don't see a scenario where Atlanta gets a third shot. It would take a local owner eager to make it happen and that currently doesn't exist.

TPG: What has been your biggest challenge with The Athletic? 
CUSTANCE: For me personally, it has been shifting from being purely a writer to a position where I'm expected to write high-qualities stories while also managing a staff. It's been an incredible opportunity and I've learned a lot along the way, but there's also a learning curve when you actually have to worry about other people besides yourself. I'm thankful for a patient and talented staff that has put up with that learning curve.

TPG: How will you quantify success with The Athletic?
CUSTANCE: Our goal is to create a sustainable model to produce great sports writing for discerning readers. So success to me is quality writing completely supported by the readers who support it. I’m very encouraged by the early returns.

Behind The Bench

TPG: OK, so a fan is intrigued with The Athletic. He or she is mulling a subscription but hasn't clicked the buy button yet. Give your best personal sales pitch here to close the deal.
CUSTANCE: Two things. One, you're going to get storytelling and information about your favorite teams you won't read anywhere else. Two, you're going to have a voice in the process. I have received multiple story ideas through subscribers of The Athletic. Either through email, social media or comments. I started a podcast (The Full 60) because they asked for it. We interact with our subscribers in the comments section because we value their opinions and we examine daily metrics that go well beyond page views to determine what our readers like and don't like. Then we try to reproduce the stories they like. We have to answer to our subscribers or else it doesn't work.

TPG: Best place to grab a great meal and drink after a game in the NHL? You can give one answer for the U.S. and another for Canada, if that makes it any easier.
CUSTANCE: My favorite places to eat tend to be in cities where I have spent a lot of time in the playoffs over the years, and Chicago is No. 1. I love eating in Chicago. Because you could easily gain 100 pounds during a Blackhawks Stanley Cup run, I try to limit eating meat on the road. And yes, I realize that breaks a million sports writer rules. One of the best meals I've ever had on the road came at a place called Mana Food Bar in Wicker Park. It was unreal. During the recent Penguins Cup runs, I've discovered just how good a food town Pittsburgh is. It's great. You should go if you've never been. I'm a big fan of Tako in downtown Pittsburgh.

If I am going to eat meat, I'm going all in at Schwartz's deli in Montreal or Pappy's Smokehouse in St. Louis.

I like a good dive bar on the road, but during the St. Louis Blues Western Conference final run a couple years ago, a place called the Bridge Tap House and Wine Bar became a bit of an escape. That same postseason, we were also regulars at the Katy Trail Ice House in Dallas, which is one of my favorite places on the road to grab a beer and watch hockey.

-- Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey's Greatest Coaches by Craig Custance, copyright (c) 2017, is published by Triumph Books. Available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow Craig Custance on Twitter @CraigCustance.