The girls are out to Bingo
and the boys are gettin’ stinko,
And we think no more of Inco
on a Sudbury Saturday night.
- Stompin’ Tom Connors
Randy Carlyle came to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1976 as the 30th overall draft pick from little Azilda, Ont., just north of Sudbury where his father did indeed work in the nickel smelter for the company then known as Inco, a Northern Ontario boy who had its twin passions for hockey and hard work.
But he had a little too much big city in his game for the taste of the late Roger Neilson, the coach who became Carlyle’s mentor and inspiration.
“Roger was always on his ass; he didn’t like him at all,” said Jim McKenny, who played defence on the Leafs with Carlyle and who was also not one of the defensive-minded Neilson’s favourites. “Roger would give him hell about going with the puck.”
Back then, Carlyle was a 20-year-old with a big mane of blonde hair and equally big ego.
He was one of a wave of rushing defencemen who came to the NHL in the years after Bobby Orr’s offensive skills forever changed the position. Neilson, the pioneer who introduced video study and defensive schemes, among other things, to the NHL, was Carlyle’s coach over much of his first two professional seasons, first with the Leafs’ farm team and later with the big team.
But then the fun-loving Carlyle was involved in a golf-cart mishap in March, 1978, with Hall-of-Fame defenceman Borje Salming, which left Carlyle on the injury list with a gash on his leg. The accident not only ended the custom of mini Florida vacations for the Leafs during a break in the schedule, it led to the end of Carlyle’s days with the Leafs.
“It wasn’t me who was driving the golf cart, it was [Salming] but I got blamed for it because it was my leg that got cut,” Carlyle said. “But it was better that it happened to me and not him.”
Neilson was behind the trade in June, 1978, that sent Carlyle to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenceman Dave Burrows. Neilson may have been a visionary as a coach but the trade wound up typically for the Leafs, as Carlyle won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman in 1981 and played in four all-star games over a career that spanned 17 seasons with the Penguins and Winnipeg Jets. Burrows wound up getting traded back to Pittsburgh.
Carlyle, though, is not one to hold a grudge. The great irony of his NHL career, in which he grew from a one-way defenceman to the demanding, defence-minded coach of today’s Maple Leafs, may be that the greatest defensive mind in hockey didn’t care much for him as a player but Carlyle says without Neilson he would not be where he is today.
“The Roger Neilson effect on me both as a player and a coach is pretty profound,” Carlyle said. “Roger taught me a lot as a player, just in the way he handled things and his expectations. Some of the things we did in 1977 and 1978 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the drills Roger taught me, I still use today.”
Carlyle was also smart enough to adapt. He came south to Toronto much like the people Stompin’ Tom Connors sang about, the northerners who worked hard and played hard, and then learned to separate the two.
“He was pretty good in the room, keeping everybody accountable,” said Dale Hawerchuk, who played with Carlyle through the 1980s on the Jets. “He liked his fun but when it was time to buckle down he was the first one to make sure everyone was in that mode.”
That attitude went to the over-riding characteristic Carlyle had as a player and one that stands out today in his coaching – his desire to compete. “He was a hard guy to play against, even in practice,” said Scott Arniel, another old Jets teammate.
Carlyle, in fact, was notorious for taking revenge on teammates who had the nerve to try to go around him in practice. Every time it happened, Carlyle’s stick, heavily-wrapped in black friction tape with a thick coating of adhesive on both sides, would come into play.
“We called it that old Gordie Howe tape,” said Hawerchuk, who now coaches the Barrie Colts of the OHL. “Guaranteed, on your way by, he would scrape your arm so you were almost bleeding. Back then you could hook and hold and he might have been one of the best at it.
“That was his pride. Even in practice he didn’t like to get beat. If you got around him, you knew something was coming, either a chop or a hook. We used to just laugh at it.”