Hockey Central

The Art and Craft of Coaching

The history books of hockey do not tell us the identity of the game's first coach. The name of the first man to stand in front of his team, go over game strategies and deliver a pep talk, has been lost to the ages.

In the earliest days of competition for the Stanley Cup, teams almost always had a playing coach or playing manager. On only two occasions in the Stanley Cup's first 25 years (1902 and 1912), was the winning coach a non-playing member of the team.

In 1902 the Cup was won by the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. The team picture includes 18 men: 10 players and eight civilians. In the latter group one "C. McKenna" is identified as "coach." The photo of the 1912 champion Quebec Bulldogs is much more crowded, with 24 people, but only nine are players. Included in the large group of civilian hangers-on is coach C. Nolan.

The last playing coaches of Stanley Cup-winning teams were Frank Patrick, with the Vancouver Millionaires in 195, and Newsy Lalonde with the Montreal Canadiens the following year. We must remember that through those early years there weren't many players in uniform for coaches to coach. The sturdy warriors of the time were "ironmen," most of them playing the full 60 minutes. Then, as rosters increased, there was more need for a coach. Lalonde's 1916 Canadiens had 12 men in uniform, the most for a Cup-winning team until then.

Through the years many teams in amateur and minor pro hockey have employed playing coaches and there were a few in the NHL until the late 1960s. Legendary defenseman Doug Harvey was the playing coach of the New York Rangers in the 1961-62 season. Harvey led the Rangers to their first playoff position in four years and won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's outstanding defenseman. The last playing coach in the NHL was Charlie Burns, who held that position during 44 games with the Minnesota North Stars in the 1969-70 season. Today the NHL does not allow playing coaches.

As full-time bench coaches became the rule rather than the exception they had to deal with a problem that coaches still face today: discipline within the ranks of their team, on and off the ice. In 1917, shortly after the National Hockey League came into being. Charlie Querrie was appointed as the coach of Toronto. Querrie posted a set of rules on his team's dressing room wall which showed that, even then, coaches meant business. Quierrie's rules read, in part:

  • First and foremost, do not forget that I am running this club.
  • You are expected to give your best services to the club, Your physical condition depends a lot on how you behave off the ice.
  • You are paid to play hockey and be a good fellow. If you do not want to be on the square and play hockey, turn in your uniform and go do some other work.

The basic idea behind Charlie Querrie's 'rules' are not that much different than ideas held by coached today, although back then it was easier for a coach to tell his players to "go do some other work." But there is much that is different today for the men who work behind the bench, especially when it comes to job security and length of service with one team. It was quite different for many coaches and managers in the early days of the NHL's modern era.

Jack Adams was hired by Detroit in 1927-28, the second year of the franchise. He was general manager of the team for the next 36 years, as well as coach through the first 21. Adams ran the Detroit organization just one way: his way. One of his favorite tricks was to walk around the dressing room before a game talking to his third- and fourth-line players with train tickets to Omaha, Nebraska prominently sticking out of his pocket. Omaha was where the Red Wings had their farm team and the message was clear: play well tonight or you'll be on the train to Omaha. Adams was a fiery type who had more than his share of run-ins with opposing managers, coaches and referees. His attempts to get at the referee in the 1942 Stanley Cup finals resulted in a fine and suspension.

Art Ross was general manager of the Boston Bruins from the time they joined the NHL in 1924 until 1945. He also coached at various times, for a total of 16 years. In those days familiarity bred contempt and Ross was involved in ongoing and bitter disputes with some of his long-time rivals. Ross suffered a broken nose and lost a few teeth as the result of a fist fight with Red Dutton, the coach and general manager of the New York Americans. Another of Ross's rivals was Conn Smythe, the president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. When he heard the result of the Ross-Dutton fiasco, Smythe said: "It couldn't have happened to a more deserving recipient. "Smythe himself exchanged punches with Bill Stewart, coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, prior to the first game of the 1938 Stanley Cup finals between their teams.

Lester Patrick was coach and general manager of the New York Rangers when they began play in 1926, and held both jobs for the next 13 years. Lester and his brother Frank were among the game's first great innovators. At one time the rule book included 20 items that had originated with one of the brothers, including the blue line. The Patricks' earned the title "the Royal Family of Hockey." Lester's sons, Lynn and Muzz, both played for and later coached the Rangers. Lynn's son Craig also played in the NHL and was general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins when that team won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992.

Beginning in 1940 the Montreal Canadiens had just two coaches, Dick Irvin and Hector "Toe" Blake, for the next 28 years. Irvin had the job for 15 years, Blake for 13. During their combined tenures the Canadiens finished first in the regular season 11 times, won the Stanley Cup 11 times, and missed the playoffs only once.

While coaches were more secure back then, there were exceptions – principally in Chiacgo where the original owner of the Black Hawks, Major Frederic McLaughlin, was a coach's nightmare. In the first 13 years he owned the team McLaughlin hired and fired 13 coaches. Two of them, Tommy Gorman and Bill Stewart, were let go shortly after they had coached the Major's team to Stanley Cup championships.

Many of today's coaches can relate to McLaughlin's victims. More than ever before, the coaching profession has become a precarious one. Management's motto seems to be: "If at first you don't succeed, you're gone," an attitude that is frustrating to the men behind the bench. Bob Murdoch, head coach in both Chicago and Winnipeg in the late 1980s, once said: "The insecurity, and at times the lack of respect for coaches, are discouraging." Others stress that the constanly escalating financial aspect of the game has owners demanding that their teams win "now".

During the 1997-98 season five of the seven teams in the NHL's Atlantic Division changed coaches. One of those changes saw Roger Neilson become coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, his seventh NHL head coaching job. A few months earlier Mike Keenan had taken over as coach of the Vancouver Canucks, his fifth team. Hockey's all-time winningest coach Scotty Bowman, was with the Detroit Red Wings, his fifth stop behind an NHL bench. Resiliency in the marketplace is definitely an asset for anyone trying to earn a living as a coach in the NHL.

The path followed by coached to the NHL has changed over the years. From the 1920s through until the late 1960s dominant, long-time winning coaches included Lester Patrick, Art Ross, Jack Adams, Hap Day, Dick Irvin, and Toe Blake. All have been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but as players not as coaches. Toe Blake retired in 1968 after coaching the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup for the eighth time. In the next 30 years only two Hall of Fame players coached Stanley Cup-winning teams: Tom Johnson with Boston in 1972 and Jacques Lemaire with New Jersey in 1995. During that same 30-year period only three other Cup-winning coaches – Glen Sather, Al Arbour, and Terry Crisp – had what could be termed lengthly NHL playing careers.

The era of the "career coach" has arrived. From 1990 to 1998 six different men were Stanley Cup-winning coaches. Only two, Jacques Lemaire and Marc Crawford, had played in the NHL. Lemaire played 998 games for the Monreal Canadiens , Crawford 196 for the Vancouver Canucks. The others, Scotty Bowman (who won three times), John Muckler, Bob Johnson, Jacques Demers and Mike Keenan never played in the NHL. In fact Bowman, Johnson, Demers, and Keenan never played professional hockey. By contrast, in the 30 years proir to 1990 only five Stanley Cup-winning coaches had not played hockey at the professional Level.

Throughout the NHL's first six decades coaches were mainly a one-man show. They were the only person listed as "coach" on their team's payroll, and their duties sometimes extended beyond simply running their team in practices and games. They were often responsible for travel and hotel arrangements and organizing game-day meals for their players while on the road. And they were the only one standing behind the bench during the games. But with the advent of an ever-expanding map of professional hockey, much of that has changed.

In the early 1980s teams began hiring assistant coaches, often recently retired players. At first, having one assistant coach work behind the bench during games was a novelty. But their number increased as the NHL grew. Today teams may have as many as four or five assistant coaches who have specific assignments and who were hired after coaching careers at the college, junior, or minor pro level. Whereas coaches in the past handled all player changes during games, some teams now have an assistant who changes defense pairings and another who changes forward lines. Another assistant might be getting a different view of the game from a location high in the arena and communicating with those behind the bench via telephone. Most of the coaches in bygone years admitted they knew little about goaltending, unless they had been one in their playing days. Among today's assistants are goaltending coaches who work both with the goaltenders on the NHL team and with young prospects playing in junior or minor pro leagues.

Another modern aspect to coaching hockey is the use of videotape to study the opposition. Most teams employ someone who has the job of taping games involving other teams, then editing the tapes to show systems and tendencies opposing teams demonstrate in offense, defense, powerplays and penalty killing. In earlier days the only time a coach saw the opposition was when his team played them, although in the smaller NHL the teams played each other much more often than today. As well as talking to their players between periods, coaches now can show them video highlights, and lowlights, of the period just completed. Instant analysis is available in the dressing room as well as on television sets on the home front.

The changing face of the NHL appears to have brought an end to teams that could be termed 'dynasties' because of their domination of the rest of the league, especially during the playoffs. Beginning in 1956, either Toe Blake of the Canadiens or George "Punch" Imlach of the Maple Leafs was the Stanley Cup-winning coach 12 times in 13 years. The most recent examples of dynasties came in the period from 1976 to 1988, when three men – Scotty Bowman of the Montreal Canadiens, Al Arbour of the New York Islanders and Glen Sather of the Edmonton Oilers – all coached four Stanley Cup-winning teams during that time, accounting for 12 of 13 championships. In the next 10 years, eight different men coached Cup winners, with Bowman the only one to do it more than once.

One reason the NHL may have seen the last of its dynasties can be found in the movement of players from team to team, which to a large degree has been dictated by free agency and high salaries. Veteran coaches have found that sometimes it isn't easy to get their message across in a dressing room full of millionaires. Salaries of coaches have always lagged far behind salaries of players although in recent years things have been looking up for the men behind the bench.

The first coach to earn as much as $20,000 for one season was Dick Irvin Sr., who signed on for that amount with the Chiacgo Black Hawks in 1955. In 1963 Toe Blake confided to some of his players in Montreal that he was making $16,000 a year. At that time Blake had coached the Canadiens for nine seasons and had won the Stanley Cup five times.

During the 1997-98 season The Hockey News published the salaries of the 26 head coaches in the NHL. In U.S. dollars they ranged from a low of $236,000 for Jacques Martin of the Ottawa Senators to a high of $970,000 for Scotty Bowman of the Detroit Red Wings. Sixteen of the NHL's 26 coaches were earning $400,000 or more. The average salary for the league's players was about $1 million while for coaches it was a more modest $466,258. The salary gap still exists but it seems that, finally, the men who walk the coaching tightrope in the NHL are being better appreciated for what they do.