PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Robb Stauber’s mind is racing faster than a cheetah. It’s obvious because he’s attempting to explain his preferred style of play as a hockey coach and comes up with an analogy that involves betting in Vegas.
Imagine, he says, if someone tells you that a mathematical formula has determined that a certain game has better odds of breaking even than others.
“Which one are you going to play?” he asks.
Show me the money, Robb.
“If it is 50-50, is there anything better than that?” he continues. “Yeah, 60-40 is better, 75-25 [is better]. Well, how do you do that? What does that look like? That’s how my mind works.”
Hey, whatever it takes to dethrone Canada in Olympic women’s hockey is worth a shot. USA Hockey promoted Stauber to head coach last May with that singular focus, whether verbalized in those terms or not.
Canada has won four consecutive gold medals. Team USA has won four consecutive World Championship titles but only one gold medal, 20 years ago in Nagano, Japan.
Women’s Olympic hockey is not unlike the old Big Ten — the Big Two and everyone else — so taking the silver medal repeatedly in a two-team race requires a different way of thinking.
Stauber embraces different. He eschews traditional hockey strategy of dump-and-chase in favor of puck possession. Dump-and-chase makes his skin crawl. He believes his team has enough individual skill and talent that giving players freedom to make plays off their own creativity is wise strategy.
“I just believe the longer the puck is on our stick, the better,” he said. “That’s not the way a lot of these players were brought up playing.”
Puck possession time and Corsi (relative shooting) percentages have gained visibility in the hockey world with the evolution of analytical research. Stauber’s philosophy is borne of common sense, too: He has superior talent so why not maximize it.
“In my mind, I had blueprint,” he said.
Stauber has successfully branched out as a coach after starting with a goalie’s perspective. The former Gophers great became the first goaltender to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey.
He served as an assistant coach on Don Lucia’s staff when the Gophers won two national championships in the early 2000s and later worked with goalies on Minnesota Duluth’s women’s team. That led to a position with USA Hockey as an assistant coach in Sochi in 2014.
The organization approached him about being head coach after another heartbreaking loss to Canada in the gold medal game. Stauber told them changes were necessary.
“You could say, well, we got unlucky [in 2014],” he said. “Yeah, you could say that but not for me. I think we can do things better. It’s not that what we did [was broken], but I believed we could do things that would give us a better chance.”
He hasn’t discovered a magic potion. Hockey systems are pretty similar and there always will be an element of randomness (good ol’ puck luck) that decides outcomes.
But Stauber believes that fans who have followed his team over the years instantly will recognize a difference in style, like it’s a new haircut.
“They will be able to articulate what they see is different, 100 percent guarantee it,” he said. “The way we play, people see it and say, this is awesome.”
His players certainly think so.
“Who doesn’t want the puck more?” forward Amanda Kessel said. “If you have the puck more, you’re going to score more goals.”
“It allows us to play more free,’’ forward Hannah Brandt said. ‘‘That’s what we like about it.
‘‘It’s not the traditional style of hockey. But he has trust in us, and that gives us the confidence to be able to play that kind of style.”
A 5-0 win against the artists formerly known as Russia on Tuesday moved Team USA to 2-0 in the preliminary round. It’s a promising start, but there’s really only one litmus test that will determine whether the change in style pays off.
They have to topple Canada and bring home gold. That would be a jackpot, to use Stauber’s analogy.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org