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Shoalts: Classy moments in NHL coach firings

Toronto Maple Leafs hockey coach George Punch Imlach.

John Wood/The Globe and Mail

Craig MacTavish may have put a modern spin on it when he became the first NHL general manager to fire his head coach via Skype, but the Edmonton Oilers boss is hardly the first guy in the league to handle the knifing with no class.

There is a long list of shameful firings in the NHL, going back to the original form of the impersonal dismissal – snail mail.

That was employed by Chicago Blackhawks GM Tommy Ivan in 1963 when he got rid of head coach Rudy Pilous, two years after Pilous directed the young team of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Pierre Pilote to its first Stanley Cup win in 23 years in the six-team NHL. There was much debate over whether Pilous was a good coach or not – some called him an innovator who employed a laissez-faire offensive game because it suited the talents of Hull and Mikita and others said he let his young charges run wild too often – and legend has it that Ivan feared Pilous was after his GM's job.

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In any event, Ivan dismissed Pilous by sending him a letter. Pilous was properly outraged and declared he would never set foot in the Chicago Stadium again, a promise he kept.

The most famous lack of grace in a dismissal belongs to, who else, Harold Ballard. The Toronto Maple Leafs owner and despot of the 1970s and 1980s had lots of bluster but no courage when it came to confronting an employee with an unpleasant decision. So when Leafs general manager Punch Imlach, himself a tyrant despised by many players, recovered from a heart attack and reported back to work in November, 1981, he discovered he no longer had a parking spot at Maple Leaf Gardens. He found out that was because Ballard fired him.

Actually, this may not have been a huge surprise to Imlach. Ballard had been telling the media – but not Imlach – that he was so concerned about his GM's health (it was Imlach's latest of several heart attacks) he thought Imlach should not come back as GM.

By all accounts, Ottawa Senators owner Rod Bryden fired the expansion team's first GM, Mel Bridgman, in person on April 14, 1993. But Bridgman surely did not appreciate being told, a day earlier, that it was time to buy a house in Ottawa and make sure his kids got into good schools.

The Senators' head coach at the time, Rick Bowness, was hired by Bridgman because he himself had suffered an egregious dismissal at the hands of Boston Bruins GM Harry Sinden. Bowness took the Bruins to the 1991-92 Stanley Cup semi-finals in his first, and only as it turned out, year as head coach despite a long list of injuries that saw 55 players pass through the lineup.

But none of this mattered to Sinden, who was famous for his quick trigger finger when it came to firing coaches. In June, 1992, Bowness was driving around Boston when he heard Sinden on the radio saying he didn't think Bowness had "the royal jelly" to be an NHL head coach. In person, Sinden told Bowness he was out but the coach told reporters Sinden "was vague" about his reasons.

A couple of days later, Bowness found out why. Brian Sutter was fired almost at the same time as head coach of the St. Louis Blues and Sinden decided he absolutely had to have the demanding member of the famous hockey family as his coach. Sutter managed to last three seasons before the inevitable struck. The Bruins did not make the NHL's final four again until 2011 when they won the Stanley Cup under Sinden's successor, Peter Chiarelli.

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This may sound familiar in the wake of MacTavish firing Krueger shortly after Dallas Eakins became available but it does not forgive him for not doing the dirty deed in person.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More


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