Fred Shero forged a reputation as the first great innovator among NHL coaches for a simple reason: He was the first among them to see the need for teaching at that level of hockey.
With that decision came the tools of a teacher. Shero wrote his own textbook, a 22-page playbook that laid out his fundamental rules for the game and his system (which emphasized puck possession more than 40 years before the analytics crowd claimed to have discovered it). Shero also got himself a classroom assistant, the first assistant coach in the NHL. He (not Roger Neilson) was the first NHL head coach to regularly watch video of his own players and other teams, and he was the first to adapt some of the methods of the Russians and Europeans.
The result was a distinguished two-decade coaching career that started with the Moose Jaw Canucks in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and ended with the NHL’s New York Rangers in 1980. Shero won two Stanley Cups, taking the Philadelphia Flyers to the title in 1974 and 1975, and he took the Rangers to the Cup final in 1979.
Shero, who died at 65 from cancer in 1990, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builders’ category Monday – an honour some feel was long overdue. (Former players Chris Chelios, Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan and Geraldine Heaney round out the Hall class of 2013.)
“He was the first coach I ever had who organized each area of the ice,” said Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Pat Quinn, who became Shero’s assistant with the Flyers after Quinn retired as a player in 1977. “I played for Punch [Imlach] and a lot of the old guys, but they never went to that depth to teach.”
Part of Shero’s teaching was making sure his assistants learned how to teach as well.
“Fred said: You may know lots about the game, but if you want to coach, you have to know how to show others to play, and my guess is you don’t know how to do that right now,” Quinn said. “I’d follow him around like a puppy dog to see if I could learn.”
While Shero was the first NHL coach to use video to study players, there was not a big supply of footage because relatively few games were televised in the early 1970s. Shero’s son, Ray (who was a stick boy with the Flyers and grew up to win his own Stanley Cup as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins), said his father often turned to radio broadcasts.
“I remember he would sit in our living room and listen to whatever play-by-play he could pick up, the Islander game or Rangers or whatever,” he said. “He’d sit with a notepad and he’d note who was on the power play, who was killing penalties. He’d have his eyes closed, write something down, and try to envision what was happening.”
Quinn discovered Shero studied video for more than to just learn what his opponents were doing.
“He believed you had to know your players, what were they capable of, what could you do with them,” Quinn said. “Were they people you could teach? Were they knotheads you couldn’t teach anything but might be helpful in some fashion?”
Shero, who was known as Freddy the Fog for his philosophical sayings that did not always make sense, was actually a calculating headmaster.
His son, Ray, called him “a player’s coach” who never criticized his players but used other methods, such as praising a player to a group of newspaper reporters. After the resulting paeans appeared in print, he said, his father would tell that player “not to believe everything you read in the newspapers.”
Quinn said Shero also liked to use his players to send messages to their teammates. On one occasion, one of the Flyers brawlers, whom Quinn declined to identify, started to think a little too highly of his own hockey skills.
“I heard him say to Terry Crisp one day, ‘Go ask him if he thinks he’s here to play hockey,’” Quinn said. “That was a little message to do what you do. You heard the statement before: the piano players play and the piano carriers carry.”
Many people thought Shero had too many piano carriers, given the many fighters on those Flyers teams. But Quinn said casting Shero as a goon coach is wrong because that approach started with team owner Ed Snider and GM Keith Allen a few years before Shero was hired in 1971, and “Fred coached what he had.”
It is also believed the Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” stigma was why it took so long for Shero to be elected to the Hall of Fame. However, there were two other reasons: Only two builders are allowed each year and the category includes just about everyone besides ex-players; and, in many years, getting the 18-member selection committee to come to the required 75-per-cent consensus was impossible.
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