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Tales From The NHL Coaching Darkside


I love listening to former NHL coaches speak. They have tales to tell en masse, and the often humourous anecdotes are pricelss jewels to anyone who loves hockey. They are better watched and listened to, than read on dry paper, and I think that putting a group of them together in one room, with cameras rolling, unscripted, would make for some great hockey related entertainment.

Two former coaches I could listen to for hours on end, are Pat Burns and Michel Bergeron. Bergeron, when mandated, can go way over the top sometimes, just as he did in his coaching life with the Nordiques and Rangers. Burns, on the other, is a seen – it – all, done – it – all guy, who’s takes on things are so succinct and honest, that I learn something new every time he moves his lips.

Burns was asked on CKAC earlier this week, just what a coach will do to try to save his job when they seem to be losing their grip on a collective team. The question was in reference to the status of coaches such as Ottawa’s Craig Hartsburg and the Penguins Michel Therrien, who are having a rough go of it this season.

Burns’ answer was quite revealing, in that it truly underlined the try anything desperation that coaches will stump to. Burns says that when things begin to slide badly, coaches will pull all the individual players aside for one on one chats. In depth video sessions with players having the most difficulty will ensue. Disciplinary measures come into the equation, with a status player or two becoming healthy scratches to shake the team up. All possible line combinations will be exausted. Players from the minor leagues will be called up for no other reason that to breathe new life into the dressing room. Once all these attempts have been played out, a fresh perception of the coach seeps into the team corridors.

With everyone in the organization knowing the bench boss’ days are numbered, people begin to look at, and speak to him differently. Team functionaires, from trainers to the maintenance staff, behave differently, perhaps no longer stopping to chat up the small stuff. According to Burns, there is a term for this coach, and he then becomes known as a “dead man walking”. Brutal stuff.


Bergeron had a good one himself about Ottawa GM Bryan Murray on Saturday. When asked to explain why Murray seemed to have nine lives in the NHL coaching merry go round, Bergeron busted a gut, suggesting in was more like twelve!

After running over Murray’s resume, Bergeron told a story that went back a good eighteen seasons. During the 1989-90 campaign, Murray was relieved of his duties behind the Washington bench, replaced oddly enough by his brother Terry, currently on an eighth NHL coaching life with the Kings himself.

As Bergeron put it, he was in Washington during his second stint behind the Nordiques bench when he surprisingly received a call from Murray, whom he had rarely ever hit it off with anytime before. Murray, stated what Bergeron already knew, that he’d been fired just four days before, and asked if it were possible to meet over lunch that day. Bergeron agreed, and when the pair sat down, Murray began to sell himself, noting that if ever a post became available anywhere in the Nordiques organization, even at the AHL level in Fredericton, would he consider his candidacy. Bergeron was caught totally off guard. He asked Murray if he truly wanted to jump back into coaching, just four days removed from his axing, and the answer was an affirmative gung – ho.

Bergeron summised that the reason Murray kept popping up in NHL circles was due to the unabashed ability to sell himself. “He must say all the right things to the right people, at the right time”, he offered. Bergeron said there are two types of unemployed coaches, those who sit around waiting for a call, and those of Murray and Mike Keenan’s stripe, who are there own best promo men.


Burns had a beauty of an anecdote about former Sabres coach Rick Dudley. Back when he was at the Habs helm in the early nineties, Burns had John Kordic as a player, and he had just gotten into a scrap with a player Dudley specifically sent over the boards to target him. Dudley was a colourful coach, who often came unhinged quite easily in the day. It was well known in NHL circles that Dudley wore a toupee, at in that particular game he was wearling a curly permed one that fell mostly to one side.

As Kordic passed the Sabres bench on the way to the sin bin, Dudley yelled, “Hey Kordic, there more of that coming your way. Keep your head up!”, to which Kordic responded, “Yeah Dudley, and the next time a cat of your dies, don’t place him on your head!”

The whole of the Sabres bench, and those within earshot in the crowd, busted up over that taunt.


Burns shared a similar story about the time his own verbal taunt came back on him and broke up his bench. Dino Ciccarelli, a noted yapper himself, was notorious for not tying down his chinstrap too tightly. Anytime there was a scuffle in front of the net, there was Dino, helmetless and creating havov. One time he skated passed the Canadiens bench, and Burns hollered, “Hey Dino, what’ll take to get you to tie that chinstrap a little tighter?” Ciccarelli, a quick wit, fired, “Maybe if you lend me one of your chins! Burns said even he cracked up over that one!

My all time favorite coaching retort, happened within the confines of a single team. Ted Green was coaching the 1990-91 Oilers, when during one particular game, he lost two centerman in a single period. The first player had been taken to the clinic with an injury and was gone from the game, when rookie Shaun Van Allen was knocked out cold. As the minutes went by, with no return of Van Allen in sight, Green impatiently asked a trainer if he had come to. When informed the player was in fact conscious, Green implied that Van Allen get back to the bench ASAP. Green was then told that would not be possible as the rookie couldn’t even remember his own name. “Great then”, the exaspered Green yelled, “Tell him he’s Wayne Gretzky, and get him out here.!”

Imagine, a Coach’s Corner, with one in every corner. It would make for some great entertainment.

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