Sylvain Lefebvre was recently relieved of his coaching duties at the head of the Laval Rocket, the American Hockey League farm team of the Montreal Canadiens. While the announcement of his replacement is pending, it’s an opportune time to take a look back at the history of the coaches behind the bench of the minor-league club, responsible for guiding the next generation of Canadiens players in their first forays into the world of professional hockey.
It’s worth remembering that the AHL is as much a training ground for coaches as it is for players. Most of these coaches came with some previous coaching experience, but normally not at the professional level, and others were simply retired hockey players.
Almost all would learn on the job, and therefore losses and mistakes were expected to occur. Ultimately, promoting a coach from within should have been the measure of success for the organization to allow for continuity in development and messaging for the prospects and players. But sometimes, just as players do, a coach would peak on the farm team, and never ascend to the National Hockey League.
Nowadays, the farm system is quite established, with an American Hockey League affiliate, followed by an ECHL affiliate. In the ‘60s, and earlier, the Canadiens had affiliates in numerous leagues, but for the 1963-64 season, the Omaha Knights of the Central Professional Hockey League were designated the primary farm team for their inaugural season, to the detriment of the Quebec Aces and Cleveland Barons of the AHL, who were deemed lower affiliates. For completeness, those teams were coached by Bernie Geoffrion and Floyd Curry, two former Canadiens players who were making a transition into coaching.
Scotty Bowman (CPHL Omaha Knights, 1963)
Overall, the Canadiens have been quite successful in promoting from within, starting with arguably the greatest head coach in the team’s history, Scotty Bowman. After his playing career was ended by an injury, he earned his coaching stripes, working his way up all the affiliates, starting with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens where he won the Memorial Cup in 1958, then three seasons behind the bench of the junior affiliate, the Peterborough Petes. A promotion to their professional farm team was the logical progression for Bowman who was acting as the franchise’s head scout in Eastern Canada at the time of his nomination.
Bowman, however, didn’t last long at the helm of the Knights, quitting after only eight games — all wins — claiming a nervous breakdown due to his relationship with the owners of the Knights, Don and Rod Morrison. Bowman returned to Montreal to take back his scouting job with the Canadiens, and to coach the NDG Monarchs before taking over the Montreal Junior Canadiens a year later.
It was a very brief foray into professional hockey for Bowman to start, and it’s funny to think that a farm team disappointment would end up being considered one of the greatest head coach in Montreal Canadiens history.
Bowman would get his first NHL head coaching job with the St. Louis Blues, taking the expansion team to three straight Stanley Cup Finals. After four seasons with the Blues, he ascended to the role he was destined for: behind the bench of the Canadiens. He won five Stanley Cups in eight seasons before moving on to become the general manager of the Buffalo Sabres.
Bill McCreary (CPHL Omaha Knights, 1963-65, CPHL Houston Apollos, 1965-66)
With Bowman’s sudden and unexpected departure, the Canadiens handed the reins of the Omaha Knights to the 28-year-old captain Bill McCreary, who took on the role of player/coach, initially on an interim basis. But the team was so successful that the Canadiens made McCreary the full-time coach after a few months. Despite being one of the youngest coaches in pro hockey — if not the youngest — McCreary took the Knights all the way to a CPHL Championship title in his very first season.
McCreary continued to pull double duty for the team, even as the affiliate moved from Omaha to Houston. In Texas, McCreary was able to add Assistant General Manager to his title, as he was to work alongside newly appointed General Manager of the Houston Apollos, Jerry DeLise.
In the summer of 1966, after a season where he was named to the CPHL All-Star Team, but failed to guide the Apollos to the playoffs, McCreary was named Assistant to the Managing Director and Director of Marketing of the Houston Apollos. His duties as head coach were removed, but he continued to play for the Apollos for another season.
After a final season with the Apollos in 1966-67, he rejoined Bowman with the St. Louis Blues in the NHL, where he played for four seasons to bring his playing career to an end. Amusingly, he also replaced Bowman in St. Louis as head coach in 1971-72, the second time in his brief coaching career that he replaces the same man. McCreary also went on to coach the Vancouver Canucks, and later became the general manager of the California Golden Seals/Cleveland Barons.
Ray Kinasewich (CPHL Houston Apollos, 1966-68)
Whereas Bill McCreary was coach by circumstance, Ray Kinasewich really seemed to be a promising coaching prospect who led the Edmonton Oil Kings to a Memorial Cup victory in his rookie coaching season, after playing minor professional hockey for 12 years across the WHL and AHL.
When Toe Blake retired at the conclusion of the 1967-68 season, Kinasewich was one of the names mentioned by the press as a successor, but there was little enthusiasm at the idea. The Canadiens general manager, Sam Pollock, eventually settled on Claude Ruel, the guy whose loyalty to the organization trumped his desire to accept the role, Floyd Curry was named Assistant General Manager, and Bowman left to coach the Blues. Kinasewich was not an option for the head-coaching vacancy.
After two failed seasons at the head of the Houston Apollos, Kinasewich would not be back for the 1968-69 season, instead returning the Oil Kings. Kinasewich went on to become the very first head coach of the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association, but with a losing record halfway through the season, Kinasewich was fired, replaced by owner Bill Hunter. Kinasewich would retire from coaching at the conclusion of the season.