No matter the sport, professional coaches understand the truism that they are “hired to be fired”. It’s part of the business of sport. Still, regardless of how expected a dismissal might be, it always seems to be a jarring development.
When the Lightning changed head coaches on November 14, I thought back on the tenures of the coaches that I had worked with during my 17 years of broadcasting pro hockey.
When I joined my first employer, the Johnstown Chiefs of the East Coast Hockey League, in the 1991-92 season, the head coach was Steve Carlson. One of “Slapshot”’s infamous Hanson Brothers, Carlson had been the coach there for a couple of years before my arrival. Carlson possessed a sharp wit and was a genuinely funny man. That’s not to say he didn’t take his job seriously, but his sense of humor couldn’t help but bleed into his coaching style. He was effective. That year, the Chiefs held first or second place in their division for most of the season. But with three weeks left in the regular season, the Chiefs endured a swoon that dropped them well out of contention for the division title. They still did make the playoffs and won their first round series against Erie. The next round was a best-of-three against Cincinnati and the Chiefs were blown out in each of the first two games, including the series clincher in Johnstown. Even though the team, in many respects, had a good year – they made the playoffs and won a round – their late-season struggles and the two bad losses to Cincinnati left a less than palatable taste in everyone’s mouth. Including in the mouth of the GM, who fired Carlson after the season. The next coach was Eddie Johnstone, who, in comparison to Carlson, was much more no-nonsense. That was the way he played for the New York Rangers in the 1970s – with grit, determination and will. It was a stark change for the players who remained from the previous year, but the 1992-93 and 1993-94 Chiefs did just as well. They both finished with winning records and made the playoffs.
While Eddie stayed in Johnstown beyond the 1993-94 season, I did not. I moved to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. Their head coach was Jay Leach, who had led them to a division title the year before. He coached the Bears through the 1994-95 campaign and halfway through the next year before the Bears’ affiliate, the Philadelphia Flyers, made a change. During the summer of 1995, the Flyers and Bears signed a number of high-profile minor league free agents and the team was expected to contend for a Calder Cup. Instead, over the first couple of months of the season, the club didn’t live up to expectations and was below .500 by Christmas. In the last week of 95, the Flyers brought in Bill Barber to coach and he helped turn the club’s fortunes around. The Bears were one of the league’s stronger teams in the second half and finished second in their division. The team dropped a close first round series to Baltimore, however, losing the fifth and deciding game in overtime.
In the world of minor league hockey, affiliates come and go. Following the 1995-96 season, the Flyers created the Philadelphia Phantoms, an expansion AHL team that would play in the now-vacant Spectrum. Bill Barber became the head coach of the Phantoms and led them to the Calder Cup in 1998. Eventually, he would be promoted to the head job with the Flyers and won the Jack Adams Award in 2001.
Back in Hershey, after the Flyers left, the Bears entered into an affiliation agreement with the Colorado Avalanche, who had just won the Stanley Cup in 1996. Colorado’s minor league team had previously been in Cornwall, Ontario, and was coached by Bob Hartley. So in that fall of 1996, Hartley and many of the former Cornwall players came to Hershey. He would coach the team for two years, leading the Bears to a Calder Cup in 1997. Following the 1997-98 season, the Avs fired Marc Crawford and promoted Hartley (who would later win a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche). They then named Mike Foligno as the new head coach of the Bears. I spent the next four years working with Foligno – the team made the playoffs all four years and twice reached the Conference Finals. After I got the job with the Lightning in 2002, Foligno stayed on for one more year with the Bears before taking over as head coach of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves, a position he still holds today.
Lightning fans know the rest of my experience with coaches. John Tortorella was the head coach here from the middle of the 2000-2001 season until last summer. Then there was Barry Melrose and now Rick Tocchet.
It’s true that coaches are hired to be fired. Obviously, as detailed in this piece, some of the coaches with whom I worked left because they were promoted or moved on to another coaching job. But nearly all of them have been subsequently fired at some point in their careers. That, however, doesn’t mean that any one of them is a bad coach. Some were more intense, others more laid back. Some were more regimented, others more flexible. But they all knew how to coach, and coach well. So how and why do they get fired? Sometimes it’s because a coach’s message no longer resonates. Other times a different coach might be a better fit for that team at that particular time. Last Sunday at Carolina, in their first game under Rick Tocchet, the Lightning played a spirited, high-tempo game. They posted 32 hits and dominated the third period and overtime. The fact that they lost in a shootout shouldn’t take away from the effort the team put forth and the belief that brighter days are on the immediate horizon.