When you saw him as a player you saw the nickname, an ode to his Native heritage, a nickname Craig Berube not only accepted but embraced. The chiseled face, the unwavering willingness to scrap and fight, it was a moniker made for the man, or so we thought.
But now you hear "Chief" and it carries more. Much more. The ease by which it rolls off his players' tongues is a testament to the manner by which he has carried himself in his first gig as an NHL coach. He's the boss. He's one of them, too. Or at least they understand that he understands what it's like to be one of them.
"He's a very intimidating guy," Jakub Voracek was saying after a brief practice yesterday at the Flyers SkateZone. "Straight up. If you play like crap, he tells you. If you play good, he tells you as well. But it's not like when he gives you crap, he does it for 2 weeks. He gives you crap and then he moves on. It's the way it should be, I think."
Berube said it's just "being honest."
"You have to tell your players what you're seeing," he said. "I don't see any other way. You know, as a coach you've got to build them up, too. Point out positives. You've got to do a little bit of everything."
When the Flyers ended a four-game skid Tuesday with that 5-0 shutout of Detroit, sighs of relief among Flyers fans inside the Wells Fargo Center and inside homes throughout the Delaware Valley could have collapsed roofs. OK, slight exaggeration, but the stakes for a team that seemed to have lost the footing gained from Berube's October promotion were hard to overstate.
Once again, the Flyers seemed the hockey equivalent of a fighter with a glass jaw. The mistakes they had overcome with Herculean late efforts or goaltending earlier in the month had multiplied like cancer cells, creating one chaotic shift after another, embarrassing breakdowns, long runarounds in their own end that only ended via a goal or a penalty.
And the goaltender whose play had provided the foundation for that footing had become part of the malaise.
"You can go through ruts and play good hockey and lose," Berube said. "But I didn't feel that. The Islander game up there we lost, I thought we played a pretty good game until the third period . . . But Carolina, Columbus and Boston - we didn't play very good at all. Like, at all. We were outskated, outworked in all three of those games."
This then, heralded the first big test for the first-year coach. His team, brimming with confidence just a few weeks before, had once again become, in his words, "Fragile."
Tuesday night was a nice step, but he warned yesterday, "We're not out of it. It takes a lot of work to get out of it. It's one game . . . "
A game that will be an asterisk if the slide that preceded it continues. A benchmark if it does not. Either way, the next 2 months of incessant jockeying for playoff spots will tell us a lot about Berube's coaching chops. All that time as a minor league coach and NHL assistant, more than 1,000 games playing for all kinds of coaches as a role player, Berube has prepared for it.
"Every time we're in meetings, the things he says makes us think," Claude Giroux said. "Guys like that are in the league for a reason, you know?"
"Every time I think, 'OK, he might lose it, this might be the time,' he always seems to keep his composure,' '' said veteran Flyers tough guy Jay Rosehill. "And I think the guys have responded to that.
"I've been at every different rank in hockey, professional and otherwise," Rosehill said. "I've had a lot of different coaches. Some good. Some not so good. The thing I notice the most in a coaching staff is how they handle losses. How they handle adversity. How they handle a player who is not doing so well. How they handle a guy who doesn't have his confidence.
"If they can see that and figure out what you need to do with that guy in order to get him back on top or what they need to say to the team in order to get them to respond - some guys just do not understand the psychology of that at all. And it's just so apparent right away and you're like, 'Wow, that's like the last thing I needed to hear.' Or, 'That's the last thing he needed to do if he wants us to win.' "
Chief, Rosehill pointed out, has passed all tests so far. He turned around a lifeless, listless team using a mantra of hard work and accountability. He kept his cool amid the recent slump. Is it over? Well, Berube's keeping his cool that way, too.
"It's a big road trip," he said before getting on a westbound plane. "I think we're going to see what we're all about here."