Tonight, Mike Yeo returns to Texas, the place where his pro hockey career began in 1994. Now the name of a hit country single by Jason Aldean, 1994 was the year Yeo started his career with the upstart Houston Aeros.
Just a year before the Minnesota North Stars were moved to Dallas, and the rival city to the south wanted their piece of the hockey action, too. So Chuck Watson and some investors bought an International Hockey League franchise, hired Terry Ruskowski as head coach, signed a bunch of players and started play in Oct. 1994.
Yeo was a part of that team, thrown together over the summer to help bring puck back to the Bayou City.
Eventually Yeo would captain the Aeros to a Turner Cup championship in 1999. That team, coached by current Coyotes boss Dave Tippett, was dominant with great chemistry and just the right amount of skill in every area.
Yeo was injured for the playoff run, but that might have turned out to be the best thing for him long term, because that is when Tippett started to rub off on the gritty forward that had good sense around the net and a decent set of hands.
Yeo was plagued by injuries after he left the Aeros for the American Hockey League. In the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, Yeo was deemed quite valuable. So when his playing career officially ended, he started his coaching career as an assistant for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Many of you know the rest of the story. He was promoted to Pittsburgh, lost one Stanley Cup Final to the Detroit Red Wings before winning it the next season over the same opponent. Deemed an NHL head coach in the making, Yeo had just one thing missing from his resume - actual head coaching experience.
The Wild jumped at the chance in the summer of 2010 and made his the head boss of their AHL team in Houston. Minnesota took a chance with the rookie coach, and it paid off as the Aeros made it all the way to the Calder Cup finals before losing in six games to the Binghamton Senators.
Ironically, the Wild almost hired Kurt Kleinendorst as coach of the Aeros, but ultimately decided on Yeo. Kleinendorst later got the job for Binghamton, who led the B-Sens to a tile on Yeo's home ice in Houston. But that is a different story.
Now Yeo is making waves for the Wild. Right now he and his staff are pushing the right buttons and might be the hottest team in the NHL. Tonight, they have a tough task at hand against a Dallas team that many don’t expect to make the playoffs. Oh, and the Wild hasn’t won in Dallas since 2003; that’s 16 straight games and a complete lack of luck.
Where Yeo sets himself apart is his tremendous ability to communicate exactly what is expected of each player. He is a player’s coach in that sense, but he holds every last player accountable for his actions both on and off the ice. Zero exceptions.
Many of you have seen the “Becoming Wild” series that showed Yeo as head coach of the Aeros during the 2011 playoff run. Yeo calmly, yet “verbally” lost his mind after the Aeros got into a huge hole in Game 6 of their division final series against the Milwaukee Admirals.
The Aeros rallied to tie, but ultimately lost in overtime. The Aeros won Game 7 at the Bradley Center, and at that moment, it looked like they’d never lost another game.
Back to this year.
On Valentine’s Day, the Wild lost at home in a shootout to the worst defensive team in the league, the Colorado Avalanche. The message boards were lighting up with “Fire Yeo,” “The system sucks...” and other impatient diatribes directed at the front office.
After that loss, the Wild were 6-6-2 and were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Yeo’s first two months in Houston weren’t much better. After a 3-0 shutout loss at Peoria in early November, the Aeros fell to 6-6-1-2 (the AHL does not combine the OT losses). The offense was sputtering, and this team that would eventually end up fifth in the overall standings during the regular season and just one of two at the end of the playoffs, was in danger of imploding.
The message boards told a similar story. “Fire Yeo,” “The system sucks...” and other impatient diatribes directed at the Wild’s front office.
Even I wasn’t sold.
The weekend before the Peoria loss, I wrote a very nasty piece for our The Third Intermission blog. I criticized the system and the players for looking clueless offensively.
Less that 24 hours later, my opinion of Mike Yeo was forever changed because of one phone call. From him.
When I saw his number of my I.D., I knew exactly why he was calling. I didn’t know him well enough just let to know what to expect, so I prepared myself for a tongue-lashing and an argument. What transpired was the total opposite.
Before saying anything else, he thanked me and the other writers for being a big part of the team. He said that Heather, John and I were great reporters and he was impressed with the local coverage in a traditional non-hockey market.
He asked me how I was doing, how my “real” job was going - He knew my job as a freelancer for the Houston Chronicle was just that - a moonlighting gig.
After the compliments and small talk, Yeo said he was calling to disagree with my comments and said that my description of the offense, to him, was unfair.
Defending myself, I asked why and spit out the best stat to support my argument. Typical defense mechanism for a reporter that was about to be taken to task.
He said, he knows all the number and then said he’s not surprised people were reacting the way they were. Then Yeo started to tell me the real reason he called, and I will summarize that here:
“Andrew, you have to give us time. What we are doing here is a little different than anything a number of these guys have ever done. Until we all get it - and I believe we will - our goaltenders and special teams are going to have to pull us through.
“I believe in what we’ve got here and what you’re seeing right now is a learning process in action. Again, I thank you for your passion with hockey and our team, but I think you jumped the gun on us.”
Then, he asked my how my kids were doing and if I was going to teach them how to skate someday..
Wow. After that moment, I felt like even I would run through a wall for the guy.
The Aeros continued to sputter around .500 until New Year’s until a couple of key additions arrived - Patrick O’Sullivan and Jed Ortmeyer.
From Jan. 1 until the end of the regular season, the Aeros went 27-11-0-3. The swept the Peoria Rivermen and then beat the Admirals and Hamilton Bulldogs in seven games before losing to Binghamton in the finals.
What is the point of this story? Yeo is the right coach for this era of Minnesota Wild hockey. He has enough players in place now to compete, and I believe the organization has the right prospects in the pipeline for a decade of Stanley Cup contenders.
Everyone knows the NHL has the toughest postseason tournament. And while this year might be a little too soon for fans to expect banners from the Wild, it’s not too early to start enjoying all the work Yeo is putting into getting one up in the very near future.
And yes, I do plan on teaching all of my kids how to skate.