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Former NHL coach and hockey commentator Harry Neale wonders if legends like former Toronto Maple Leafs hockey coach George Punch Imlach would even be coaching in the present day NHL. File Photo by John Wood for The Globe and Mail (John Wood/The Globe and Mail)
Former NHL coach and hockey commentator Harry Neale wonders if legends like former Toronto Maple Leafs hockey coach George Punch Imlach would even be coaching in the present day NHL. File Photo by John Wood for The Globe and Mail (John Wood/The Globe and Mail)

NHL Weekend

NHL coaches remain 'hired to be fired' Add to ...

Hey, come on now, at least these days they’re either telling them to their face or giving them the courtesy of a telephone call.

Billy Reay got canned after more than a dozen seasons as coach of the Chicago Blackhawks when his wife found a note from owner Bill Wirtz slipped under their apartment door. She thought it must be a Christmas card, the holiday being only days away, only to discover her husband was no longer coach.

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Even so, three fired NHL coaches in one week is surprising even for the trigger-happy NHL. Paul Maurice is out in Carolina, Kirk Muller is in. Bruce Boudreau is out in Washington, Dale Hunter is in. Randy Carlyle is out in Anaheim, while in comes Bruce Boudreau.

This week’s multiple firings bring to more than two dozen the number of canned NHL coaches since the lockout ended in 2005, four already this year if you include the St. Louis Blues’ replacing Davis Payne with Ken Hitchcock less than a month into the season.

There is some evidence that it works – the Pittsburgh Penguins went on to win the 2009 Stanley Cup after replacing Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma – though it has not paid off immediately for either Washington or Carolina, as both teams lost twice in the days following the firings. No wonder coaches accept the defeatist notion that they are “hired to be fired.” As Tommy McVie, once coach of the Capitals, the Winnipeg Jets and the New Jersey Devils so nicely put it: “I can be out of town in 20 minutes, 30 if I have stuff at the cleaners.”

Harry Neale has been on both sides, being fired and replaced in the years he coached in the old World Hockey Association and with the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings of the NHL. He also fired a coach, Roger Neilson, when Neale was general manager of the Canucks. Neale is also legendary in coaching circles for a line he delivered to the media in the early 1980s: “Last season we couldn’t win at home. This season we can’t win on the road. My failure as a coach is I can’t think of any place else to play.”

Today, Neale works as a colour analyst on the Buffalo Sabres’ broadcasts but still feels a twinge when another hockey coach takes the fall. “Let’s be honest,” he says, “when teams don’t live up to expectations – even when those expectations are sometimes unfair – everyone from the owner to the general manager is asking, ‘What can we do to help?’

“I’d say 90 per cent of coaches who get fired have worked harder in the month before the firing than ever before. Not to save his job, but to find a solution. I don’t think the possibility of getting fired enters their mind as much as it does others.”

When that team doesn’t get going, the coach is usually the first one to pay the price. Not the GM, who provided the players who aren’t delivering, but the coach, for failing to prove the GM correct in his talent assessments.

It is one of the realities, however unfair, of NHL hockey. The GM not only has the power to fire, but he usually has the ear of the owner, often the only one with access to that all-important ear. Coaches get blamed first and quickly, GMs only down the line and rarely.

Firing the coach, Neale says, is increasingly the only possible solution available. Trades, especially big impact ones, have become difficult in the age of the salary cap and long-term multimillion-dollar contracts. Sending non-performing stars to the minors, where they continue to be paid at the NHL level, is a luxury only the richest clubs, such as the New York Rangers, will attempt.

The days of powerful coaches like Punch Imlach, Fred Shero and Scotty Bowman – “guys who ruled the roost” – are likely long gone, Neale says. “I don’t even know if those guys could coach the way things are today.”

Firing the coach, he says, actually makes strange sense in the current NHL. “Today’s coaches don’t make even what the average player makes in salary,” Neale says, “so it’s not a major financial decision.”

As for today’s coaches, they increasingly have fewer levers available with which to manipulate and motivate their players. “The coach hasn’t much of a hammer,” Neale says. “The only penalties you’ve got is to withhold shifts, change the lines or sit out a player. And all of them only work temporarily.”

A fresh coach, however, brings certain advantages. “It’s the one chance that coach has to look the players in the eye and say, ‘I don’t know who will play with whom, who will play the power play, so you’re going to have to show me.’

“It’s also a beautiful opportunity for a guy who’s not been playing as well as he should be to show something. So there are positive reasons for changing coaches.”

There are also positives, he says, for no longer living with such uncertainty as today’s coaches are under.

“I haven’t lost a game in 24 years.”

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