Game On: Vancouver’s Favourite Coaches

Three of Vancouver’s favourite coaches – ?Wally Buono, Don Hay and Ryan Walter – are blowing away clichés while proving the great value of sport as a teacher of success, failure and leadership. ?

Don Hay, Vancouver Giants | BCBusiness
Don Hay’s recipe for success on the ice – discipline and a strong work ethic – easily transfers to the boardroom.

Three of Vancouver’s favourite coaches – 
Wally Buono, Don Hay and Ryan Walter – are blowing away clichés while proving the great value of sport as a teacher of success, failure and leadership. 

It’s a cliché as old as sports movies in Hollywood: minutes before the big game, the coach strolls to the middle of the locker room and with equal doses of passion and emotion delivers that motivational speech that sets the tone for his team to capture the championship. That may be the way it’s done on film, but rarely, if ever, is that actually what occurs before a B.C. Lions game. 

Certainly, Wally Buono has some final words of wisdom for his football team moments before it leaves the locker room, but the winningest coach in Canadian Football League history doesn’t believe leadership comes in the form of a motivational speech prior to kickoff. In a lesson that could just as easily apply to a corporate boardroom before a key meeting as to the gridiron, Buono feels if he hasn’t done his job in the week leading into a game, anything he says before it will simply ring hollow.

“Is a speech that’s said 20 minutes before a game really going to motivate anybody? I doubt it. It never did for me as a player,” says Buono, now in his ninth season as head coach and general manager of the Lions. “I don’t believe what is said right before a game has as much validity as what you do all week as far what you are trying to achieve. During the week you set the plan and set all the things in place to get the team ready to go out and compete.”

Image: Steve Bosch/PNG

Don Hay shares Buono’s belief about the importance of practice leading to success in sports – and life. The head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants and soon-to-be bench boss of Canada’s entry at the World Junior Hockey Championship doesn’t subscribe to the theory that practice makes perfect. But he does feel that simulating game conditions in practice as much as possible allows his players to be ready for anything they encounter when they are playing for keeps.

And that’s why Hay feels one of his best leadership traits is to set the standards high between games so that his players stay focused and hungry throughout the hockey season.

“I feel I’m really demanding in practice and trying to make my practices harder than the games, so that when they get in the games, they feel comfortable in all situations,” the three-time Memorial Cup winning coach explains. “You can make adjustments during the games, but the planning and preparation starts at practice.”

And Hay’s recipe for success in hockey is one that could easily be applied by business leaders in their workplace. “I have a strong belief in discipline and work ethic. Discipline is a good thing and work ethic is something that will help people throughout their lives,” he says.

In order to help his team strive for excellence in practice – which in turn leads to success during games – Hay has learned to vary his approach from day to day. Through years of experience coaching in the National Hockey League and the junior ranks, the former Kamloops fireman has developed practice plans that challenge his players and keep them striving to improve. It’s an approach executives could consider when trying to bring out the best in their employees.

“I think it’s key that you can come up with different ways to keep your players excited about playing – it’s a long schedule and you can play 100 games before you win a championship,” he says. “Whether it’s motivating them day-to-day or month-to-month, it’s important that they’re excited to come to the rink. Part of motivation is doing fun things that keep the players wanting to learn and wanting to get better. Once the fun has gone out of the game, it’s a grind. So you want players to enjoy themselves so that they come to the rink with lots of energy and enthusiasm. You want them to feel like they’re getting better. And if they’re getting better, the team is getting better.”

Image: Rick Ernst/The Province

Ryan Walter has lived his life striving for personal and team success – and he’s found it. As an NHL captain, Stanley Cup winner, coach, broadcaster, author and now months into his new role as president of the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat, Walter has truly done it all in his sport. And he believes his leadership skills have played a huge role in his achievements. 

Holding a master’s degree in business leadership, Walter is now trying to apply everything he’s learned from his days on the ice and in the classroom to his new job overseeing an entire organization.

“One of my professors told me everything rises and falls on leadership and I think that’s such an important statement,” Walter says. “You can have great players, but you can lose with great players. That’s where leadership makes such a difference. Most people look only at the game and ask ‘who’s yelling the loudest’ and say ‘well, that’s the leader’ and that’s very seldom true. I think there is this mystique that there is only one leader on a team and he does everything and that’s rarely the case. My premise coming out of pro sports and even now as an executive is that success comes from leaders leading leaders. You really don’t have time for followers.”

Walter and Hay work with rosters that are smaller than the one Wally Buono has to deal with. So an argument can be made that it’s tougher to lead a football team than a hockey club. But Buono doesn’t make distinctions. He believes the same principles of strong leadership will yield results in either sport – and in all walks of life.

“At the end of it, there has to be someone who sets the vision, sets the plans, sets the goals and then tries to get everyone to work together to achieve all that,” he says. “The longer you’re in leadership, you only get better if you learn to adapt, change and do all the things that have to occur to get victories.”

In sports, wins are what matter most – just ask Wally Buono, Don Hay and Ryan Walter. They all know success in sports comes through preparation, execution and leadership. It’s much tougher – but in the end much more satisfying – than a scriptwriter simply deciding the outcome the way it’s done in the movies.