Coach needs Wranglers to grow up

Glen Gulutzan has four little ones at home. He knows all about the emotional roller coaster kids can ride on a daily basis.

He just would prefer his hockey players didn’t also purchase a ticket.

“I have been baby-sitting more this year than any before,” Gulutzan said. “There came a time when I had to revamp myself. I got pissed off and was tired of holding guys’ hands and teaching them how to be pros.

“Anyone can say what they want — we’ve never had the creme de la creme of talent, but we’ve always had high-character guys who came to practice and to play every day. This (current) team can beat anyone. It’s that good. But we need to get going mentally.”

The Wranglers aren’t going to earn a historic fourth straight 100-point season this year because that would take winning 30 of their final 34 regular-season games, and while Gulutzan is one of the finest coaches Las Vegas has known in any sport, even he couldn’t pull off such a water-into-wine miracle.

He believes, and hopes, things are better now than a month ago. Las Vegas is just a game over .500 as it prepares to host Bakersfield tonight, when the Wranglers will wear striped prison uniforms in honor of one of history’s all-time buffoons, impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Bakersfield players will wear bright orange jerseys to mimic the Department of Corrections and the referees blue police jerseys. It should be a fun evening poking fun at a dirty politician with far more serious problems than his hair.

You’ll excuse Gulutzan for having other things on his mind.

If true maturity is knowing when to be immature, many of the Wranglers this season didn’t learn the difference early enough for their coach. Hockey at this level annually introduces young players to a professional existence and what is expected of them.

The Wranglers of November and December struggled most because of off-ice issues, of knowing how to care for one’s body away from the arena and working out without having to be told and treating practice time as they would a game.

In other words, some on a roster that includes nine players in their first or second professional season struggled acting like adults.

“It has been a slow, slow improvement, too slow,” Gulutzan said. “Enough was enough. They’re as good as any team we’ve had, but my frustration with them began showing up, and my overall demeanor reflected on the team. I was mad. I was angry. I was tired of some of them. I had to do something.”

So he put one of his two hats aside for a bit.

Gulutzan the general manager in those early months was on the telephone most days hoping to rid the team of its childish ways. Gulutzan the coach thought there was a better way. Teaching. Not giving up on them. Not trying to trade the next guy who jumped on that roller coaster.

It seems to have worked some. The Wranglers haven’t taken as many stupid penalties of late, haven’t cost the team points by being lazy or undisciplined at the worst times. Being aggressive is one thing. Being foolish is another.

They still rank last among league teams on the power play, a position they have not abandoned since Day 1. They still haven’t earned a win streak of more than two, something they can rectify tonight. They still have miles to travel to make any potential playoff opponent worried.

“It all comes down to us being consistent with daily habits,” fourth-year pro Chris Neiszner said. “At first, we had a lot of guys who didn’t understand the commitment it takes. You’re not in juniors anymore. It took time to deal with.”

Victoria is one of the league’s best teams this season, and the Wranglers over the weekend won one of three from the Salmon Kings and outshot them in losses of 4-2 and 2-1. In the eyes of a coach, this is progress, clear proof something good exists beneath the youthful surface.

“Two years ago, we had a team that had over 100 points and won 18 straight and still had no business winning the league,” Gulutzan said. “No disrespect to them, but they would all say the same thing. But they were all pros.

“Our guys realize we are not that far off, that if we get over the hump mentally, we can make up that 5 percent between now and the playoffs and could be the team no one wants to face. We have good people on this team. We don’t have good pros. It’s up to me as coach to keep trying to make them good pros.”

His point: Roller coasters are for the little ones.

Although I could also see that wacko Blagojevich riding one, hair blowing in the wind and all.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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