Hired to be fired. That is the life of an NHL coach. These men have what many would consider to be a dream job, getting to boss around hockey’s greatest stars, and getting the best seat in the house as they get to watch every game at ice level, and be in the thick of the battle. Still, huge pressure to perform from fans, media, upper management, and ownership must make this about as stressful a job as can be imagined. Not only do these men have to deftly and diplomatically handle the huge egos of all these hockey prodigies, most earning millions of dollars a year, and from many different ethnic backgrounds, but they are forced to watch helplessly, never able to pick up a stick and contribute once the puck drops to start the game. This inability to directly affect the flow of the game must be the most frustrating part for these tacticians, especially those that are former players. Just one look at Wayne Gretzky seething on the bench when his team is underperforming will tell you how badly #99 wants to grab a stick, jump on the ice and make something happen. Instead these coaches must tap into their vast store of hockey knowledge, subtly tweaking lines, matching up players, and getting the right guys on the ice for the right situation at all times. They must read and react to the strategies of the opposing coach and try to outbattle him to give their team the best chance to win.
But bench management is but the tiniest percentage of a coach’s duties. They must agonizingly plan and prepare their systems and strategies, get their players to first buy into those systems, and then teach the players to properly execute them. On top of all that they are required to be at the beck and call of the media and upper management to answer for what their team has or hasn’t been doing. With all these strings pulling them in so many different directions, it’s no wonder that most coaches have grey hair, if they have any hair left at all.
Some coaches crack under the strain, but the best coaches relish the challenge and the adversity and meet it head on. The best of the best go on to long, distinguished careers, guiding their respective teams to multiple championships along the way. Here is my list of the top 10 NHL coaches of all time:
10 – Mike Keenan
Love him or hate him (and most hate him) Iron Mike Keenan has a reputation for getting the most out of his players. Whether they actually like his methods, or whether they are so angry and frustrated at him, they’ll give everything they have just to prove him wrong, players perform for Mike Keenan. He has taken 3 different teams to Stanley Cup finals in his coaching career, losing with both Philadelphia (twice) and Chicago before finally winning the big prize with the New York Rangers in 1994. His recent coaching record hasn’t been as good as the first half of his career was, but he is still one of the top 5 winningest coaches of all time in both the regular season and playoffs and thus deserves a spot on this list.
9 – Pat Quinn
This gum-chewing Irishman with the throbbing temple is one of the most respected men in today’s NHL. A former NHL defenseman who spent time with the Leafs, Canucks, and (Atlanta) Flames during his NHL career, Quinn wasted no time getting behind the bench after hanging up the skates. After cutting his teeth as an assistant coach, and an AHL head coach, Quinn was given the assignment as the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. It was during his tenure with the Flyers that he had his greatest post-season success, coming within a whisker hair of winning the Stanley Cup when his team lost in overtime of the 7th and deciding game to the New York Islanders. He later went on to coach the Kings, Canucks and Leafs and Oilers and though he never managed to win a cup, he is generally considered one of the best coaches of the modern era.
8 – Glen Sather
There is no question this guy deserves a spot on the list of the top 10 NHL coaches of all time. Though some would argue the Edmonton Oilers of the 80s were so talented they could have won Stanley Cups without any coach at all, anyone who knows the game can tell you that talent alone does not make a champion. Someone had to nurture and guide that talent, balance the ice time of the superstars with that of the role players, and get some of the greatest players in NHL history to buy into a team system that would eventually lead to glory. Sather managed to do all this with great style, guiding his young stars, little more than boys when he was given charge of them, to become champions and men.
7 – Billy Reay
Another former player turned coach, Billy Reay won two Stanley Cups as a member of the Montreal Canadiens during his playing days. After his playing days were through he turned his attention to coaching, signing on with the Leafs as an assistant coach, before getting a head-coaching job with the Chicago Black Hawks. With stars like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita under his tutelage, he guided the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup finals in the 60s and 70s, and though he never won he finished his coaching career just a single victory short of 600. Such a number definitely qualifies him as one of the best coaches ever.
6 – Fred Shero
Fred Shero may have had a shorter coaching career than many of the others on this list, spending just over 9 seasons coaching the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers, I don’t think anyone will dispute he was one of the best to ever step behind the bench. In 1974 he won the Jack Adams trophy, awarded to the league’s best coach, the same year he coached the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup. He and his Flyers won a second cup the following year, and to this date are the only two championships in the history of the Flyers. He finished his brief coaching career with 451 total wins, and a very respectable .606 winning percentage.
5 – Roger Neilson
Captain Video was one of the game’s great innovators. He was the first coach to regularly employ the use of video to study other teams and as a coaching tool to show his players what they were doing wrong on the ice. His most famous moment as a coach came when he was subbing in for suspended Vancouver Canuck coach, Harry Neale. Disgusted with the reffing, and feeling that his team had been unfairly discriminated against, Roger stood on the bench, and raised a stick with a white towel on the end in mock surrender, starting a tradition of “Towel Power” in Vancouver that is still observed today. He spent time as a head coach for an amazing 8 different teams, and finished his NHL coaching career with 1,000 career regular season games coached. Sadly, Roger died of cancer in 2003. He was one of the game’s true characters and one of the most well-respected hockey figures of all time.
4 – Dick Irvin
Though probably before most reader’s time, this father of well-known Hockey Night in Canada analyst, Dick Irvin Jr. was one of the greatest coaches to ever step behind an NHL bench. His tour of duty included stops in Chicago, Toronto and Montreal, where he presided over one Maurice Richard. When his coaching career finished he was the all time leader in career wins with 692 and he had four Stanley Cup rings.
3 – Al Arbour
Though he spent the early part of his coaching career guiding the St. Louis Blues, Arbour is known throughout the hockey world as the coach of the New York Islanders, where he spent an incredible 19 seasons as the head coach. That stat alone should tell you how good he was, and reassure you he deserves a spot as one of the top 10 NHL coaches of all. Still, that was not his only accomplishment. Al Arbour was the architect of the Islander dynasty of the early 80s, guiding his team to 4 straight Stanley Cups, before finally being knocked off by the powerful Edmonton Oilers in his 5th straight appearance in the finals. He coached 1,500 regular season games for the Islanders, winning 740 of them and finished with 123 career playoff wins and .589 playoff winning percentage.
2 – Toe Blake
A former Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner from his playing days, when he played for the Canadiens, alongside Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach on the team’s famous Punch Line, Toe Blake had his playing career ended in its prime after suffering a badly broken ankle. Not ready to give up the game he loved, he turned to coaching. He went on to coach his former teammates for 13 seasons, guiding them to the Stanley Cup championship 8 times during his tenure there.
1 – Scotty Bowman
With all due respect to the nine other gentlemen on this list, no one was even close when I decided to count down the top 10 NHL coaches. This selection should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the game. Bowman’s numbers are so staggering, and the respect accorded to him by the hockey media so great, that only a fool would suggest he belongs anywhere but at the top. With 9 Stanley Cups as a head coach, 1,244 wins and 223 playoff wins (all NHL records) his resume speaks for itself. He coached some of the greatest players to ever play during his days with St. Louis, Buffalo, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit, and he always commanded the respect and the undivided attention of those players. Truly one of the legends of the game.
Featured image by Bluesguy from NY