Most Coaches Have Two Left Feet

TORONTO (May 10) — Among the hidden stories of Guy Boucher becoming head coach of the Ottawa Senators this week (replacing Dave Cameron) involved unspoken evidence that Boucher would have been hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs 12 months ago, had Mike Babcock taken his act to Buffalo.

You may recall that Babcock either committed verbally to the Sabres on May 20 of last year — or came very close to signing with owner Terry Pegula — before a front–loaded, $50–million offer from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment prompted a U–turn on the Queen Elizabeth Way. Reporters Mike Harrington (Buffalo News) and Adam Binigni (WGRZ–TV) grilled Babcock during his introductory news conference at the Air Canada Centre on May 21, claiming to have information that he accepted Pegula’s overture before pulling a ‘180’ on the Sabres. At one point in the heated exchange, Benigni accused Babcock of “lying” to Pegula.

Whatever the case, Babcock hadn’t signed anything with Buffalo and was free to accept the engorged proposal from MLSE. The Sabres countered by hiring Dan Bylsma, Stanley Cup–winning coach of the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins. Boucher continued as coach of Schlittschuh Club (S.C.) Bern in Switzerland until a four–game losing streak spelled his demise on Nov. 18. Also in the National Hockey League coaching mix at this time a year ago was Todd McLellan — fired in San Jose and promptly claimed by the Edmonton Oilers. Peter DeBoer, a Stanley Cup finalist in 2012 with the New Jersey Devils, replaced McLellan in San Jose.

The NHL coaching shuffle of May 2015 got me thinking on two levels — that Boucher would not have been anything close to a “sexy” choice by the Maple Leafs had Babcock and McLellan signed elsewhere. And, that all of the aforementioned — indeed the overwhelming majority of “best” coaches in NHL history — either never played the game at the highest level, or were comparative slugs on the ice. This includes every name currently on the Top 10 list of coaching victories in the NHL: Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville, Al Arbour, Ken Hitchcock, Dick Irvin Sr., Pat Quinn, Lindy Ruff, Mike Keenan, Ron Wilson and Barry Trotz.

Four of these men — Bowman, Hitchcock, Keenan and Trotz — did not play in the NHL.

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SCOTTY BOWMAN, PICTURED AT 44 YEARS OF AGE AS MONTREAL’S COACH IN 1977. THE HABS HAD JUST BEGUN THEIR DYNASTY OF FOUR CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUP TITLES (1976–79).

Quenneville leads the group with 803 big–league games as a No. 3 or 4 defenseman with Toronto, Colorado, New Jersey, Hartford and Washington. Ruff was a third–line plugger with Buffalo and the New York Rangers, scoring 105 goals in 691 games while totaling 1,264 penalty minutes. Arbour saw action in 626 NHL games, but not as a full–time defenseman until after expansion with St. Louis (and with Bowman as coach). Quinn dressed for 606 games with Toronto, Vancouver and Atlanta. The Big Irishman could throw his weight around but often appeared to be skating on wood (to which I’d receive a derisive email if Patrick were still alive). Wilson was probably the most talented of the Top 10, though he played only 177 games with the Leafs and Minnesota North Stars. But, Ronnie handled and shot the puck well. Irvin, whose son, Dick Jr., became a broadcasting legend with Hockey Night In Canada in the 60’s and 70’s, appeared in 94 NHL games for Chicago from 1926 to 1929. There were no stars on this list of behind–the–bench phenoms.

It led me to review the list of Stanley Cup–winning coaches in the post–expansion era (beginning in 1967–68). By any objective standard, only half–a–dozen such men were front–line players in the NHL — accounting for seven of 47 championships. They include Hector (Toe) Blake (Montreal 1968), Tom Johnson (Boston 1972), Jacques Lemaire (New Jersey 1995), Larry Robinson (New Jersey 2000), Randy Carlyle (Anaheim 2007) and Darryl Sutter (Los Angeles 2012, 2014).

Blake centered the famed “Punch Line” with Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach in the 1940’s, compiling 527 points in 577 games. Johnson, while overshadowed by defense partner Doug Harvey, was a key figure on the Montreal clubs (under Blake) that hoarded a record five consecutive Stanley Cups beginning in 1956. He won the Norris Trophy in 1958–59. Lemaire was Guy Lafleur’s main set–up man on the great Canadiens teams of the 1970’s under Bowman. The clever center had seasons of 92, 95 and 97 points in his Hall–of–Fame career. Robinson — Lemaire’s Montreal teammate — ranks among the top dozen defensemen in NHL history. Carlyle won the Norris Trophy with Pittsburgh in 1980–81, registering 16 goals and 83 points. And Sutter, a talented left–winger, had seasons of 40 and 31 goals with Chicago in the 80’s.

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A YOUNG RANDY CARLYLE WON THE 1981 NORRIS TROPHY WITH PITTSBURGH.

The dynasty coaches of the post–expansion era — winning at least four Stanley Cup titles with the same team — are Bowman (Montreal), Arbour (New York Islanders) and Glen Sather (Edmonton). Quenneville would join this group with one more Chicago triumph. As mentioned, Bowman never played in the NHL and Arbour was a journeyman blue–liner. Sather appeared in 658 games with Boston, Pittsburgh, the Rangers, St. Louis, Montreal and Minnesota from 1966–76. As his NHL travel log indicates, Slats was hardly a mainstay, erupting for a career–high 15 goals with the Blues in 1973–74.

The two greatest players in NHL history, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, coached for a brief span.

Orr became one of the earliest assistant coaches — helping out Bob Pulford with Chicago in 1978–79 mainly because his shredded knees would no longer allow him to play for the Blackhawks (he officially retired on Nov. 8, 1978). Gretzky was head coach (and part–owner) of the Phoenix Coyotes for four seasons (2005–06 to 2008–09), compiling a record of 143–161–74 while missing the playoffs each year.

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THE GREAT ONE WILL BE REMEMBERED INFINITELY MORE FOR HIS UNPARALLELED PLAYING CAREER THAN HIS FOUR–SEASON COACHING REIGN WITH THE PLAYOFF–LESS PHOENIX COYOTES.

Though circumstances differ, it is clear that the best coaches of the past half–century in the NHL were primarily those with two left feet on the ice. The prevailing theory suggests the truly elite performers have difficulty transferring their intuitive hockey traits — such attempts, if made, evolving into an exercise in frustration. Perhaps that is why the vast majority of these players either had limited success, or shied away from the coaching profession altogether.

50 YEARS AGO

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While playing for Toe Blake early in the two–goalie era, Lorne (Gump) Worsley and Charlie Hodge shared the Vezina Trophy with the Stanley Cup–champion Montreal Canadiens a half–century ago, in 1965–66 (Montreal beat Detroit on Henri Richard’s overtime goal in Game 6 at Olympia Stadium). They are pictured here on the cover of Hockey Pictorial magazine in October 1966. Both men are now gone. Worsley died at 77 years of age on Jan. 26, 2007, four days after suffering a heart attack. Hodge died last month (Apr. 16) at 82.

TUESDAY TIDINGS: Miami center Hassan Whiteside did not travel here to Toronto with the Heat for tomorrow night’s pivotal fifth game of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals at Air Canada Centre. Unfortunately for the Raptors, Dwayne Wade was on the northbound charter. And, if the best player on either team ascends to such a level, that team will regularly prevail — in all sports but particularly in basketball, where 13 athletes dress and there are but five starting positions. Wade snatched Game 4 from the Raptors on Monday night at the American Airlines Arena. Toronto led, 77–68, with 6:40 left on the clock. Miami cruised, 26–10, through the balance of regulation and a five–minute overtime session. Wade finished with a game–high 30 points. If the veteran shooting–guard, in his 13th NBA season, prevails again on Wednesday, the Raps will likely face elimination Friday night in Miami. Especially in the absence of their best playoff performer — center Jonas Valanciunas — who is sidelined with a sprained right ankle. That said, the Raptors–Heat series has been remarkably close, with three of four games extending beyond regulation. It is the perfect recipe for an individual to dictate the outcome, and Wade was that man on Monday… Driving home from Guelph, I caught much of the fourth quarter on TSN–1050 and was pleased for my friend, Paul Jones. The radio voice of the Raptors has been through abject disappointment for much of his time on the air. He began as an analyst with original play–caller Mike Inglis in the club’s first season, 1995–96, and has worked mostly alongside Eric Smith for more than a decade now. The Raptors downed Indiana in the opening round this spring for their first–ever best–of–seven conquest, and first playoff victory of any length since 2001. As regulation time wound to a close in Miami on Monday night, you could feel and hear Paul’s emotion. “Playoff basketball in the NBA — it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he enthused…

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DWAYNE WADE PREENS IN FRONT OF ECSTATIC FANS ON MONDAY NIGHT AT THE AMERICAN AIRLINES ARENA IN MIAMI. HIS 30 POINTS LED THE WAY IN A CRUCIAL GAME 4 OVERTIME VICTORY. TORONTO STAR

I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again: Why don’t the Leafs just make it official? That barring a catastrophic injury, they will select Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft, June 24. As Edmonton did last year at this time — if not in so many words — with Connor McDavid. As the Islanders did with John Tavares; Tampa Bay with Steven Stamkos; Chicago with Patrick Kane. There was no suspense a year ago in the wake of the draft lottery; nor should there be any today. Though general manager Lou Lamoriello may politely listen to trade overtures, the Leafs will neither discard the No. 1 pick nor choose a winger (Patrick Laine) over a potential franchise center–man. So, why not come out with it? Give the kid his due — and the full, unrelenting confidence of the organization heading into the draft. There’s nothing at all to hide… San Jose and Nashville will decide one of the wackiest Stanley Cup rounds in recent memory on Thursday night in California. Three of the six games thus far have been lop–sided while the others have produced one–goal results; two of them in overtime; Game 4 stretching into the third extra frame at Bridgestone Arena before veteran Mike Fisher sent the locals fleeing deliriously. The home team has held serve to this point. Which provides additional onus on the Sharks for Game 7… There isn’t a coach in the NHL that would have done anything differently than Ken Hitchcock with starting goalie Brian Elliott on Monday night. A difference–maker for the St. Louis Blues, and arguably the NHL’s surest netminder since mid–January, Elliott allowed three first–period goals against Dallas in Game 6 at the Scottrade Center. With the Stars up, 3–0, and a decisive match all but inevitable, Hitchcock pulled Elliott in favor of back–up Jake Allen — primarily, we would assume, to give his No. 1 man additional rest before the winner–take–all match on Wednesday in Dallas. Politely, yet firmly, Hitchcock later ridiculed reporters that suddenly questioned his confidence in Elliott… The new voice of Monday Night Football on ESPN should be familiar to long–time fans of the Toronto Blue Jays. Boston native Sean McDonough, 53, replaces Mike Tirico in the telecast booth for the 2016 NFL season. While working for CBS as a young broadcaster, McDonough (son of the late Boston Globe writer and TV analyst, Will McDonough) called the 1992 and 1993 World Series on national TV in the United States and Canada. At the old Fulton–County Stadium in Atlanta on Oct. 25, 1992, it was McDonough who said (after pitcher Mike Timlin flipped a bunted ball to Joe Carter at first base): “For the first time in history, the world championship banner will fly north of the border; the Toronto Blue Jays are baseball’s best in 1992. Oh Canada, what a series!” McDonough was also in the booth at SkyDome for Carter’s walk–off home run a year later that lifted the Blue Jays past Philadelphia for their second championship. “Well–hit down the left field line; way back and gone! Joe Carter with a three–run homer. The winners and still world champions, the Toronto Blue Jays.” McDonough’s TV words, however, were trumped by the iconic “touch ’em all!” radio call of the late, great Blue Jays announcer, Tom Cheek.

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SEAN McDONOUGH IN THE BROADCAST BOOTH AT FENWAY PARK IN BOSTON. THE 53–YEAR–OLD REPLACES MIKE TIRICO AS THE VOICE OF MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL ON ESPN AFTER MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF BY CALLING THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS WORLD SERIES VICTORIES IN 1992 AND 1993.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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