by Ron Spence
You want to be an NHL head coach.
And you’d really like to have that Stanley Cup resting in your living room – at least for a while.
Even though there’s a stranger sitting – in your favourite reclining chair – guarding it, while you’re entertaining that brother-in-law – and his friends – you can’t stand.
So, what’s the secret?
Is there a template for success?
Well, if you’ve been an NHL player, and management believes that you have promise, you might be named an Assistant Coach. That could be step number one.
Of those who have won the Cup since 1997, two have followed that route.
Larry Robinson was hired as an assistant by the New Jersey Devils in 1993. And Randy Carlyle advanced in the Winnipeg Jets’ organization, becoming an assistant coach before the 1995–96 season.
Larry stayed with the Devils, was named head coach and won the Cup in 2000, and Carlyle raised the Trophy seven years later, with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Some career minor leaguers have started their coaching careers in the bottom professional leagues – mostly where they have played, because that’s where they’re known.
And two of them went on to win Stanley Cups.
Peter Laviolette was first a head coach of the Wheeling Nailers, in the East Coast Hockey League. He had played ten years in the minors, including a 12 game cup of coffee with the Rangers during the 1988–89 campaign.
John Tortorella played for Salem State College, the University of Maine, and in Sweden, before finishing in the lowly Atlantic Coast Hockey League.
With his third ACHL team, the Virginia Lancers, Torts was promoted to both the GM and head coach from 1986 until 1988.
Tortorella had his name engraved on Lord Stanley in 2004, with the rest of his Tampa Bay Lightning, and Laviolette with his Carolina Hurricanes two years later.
Dan Blysma was a variation on Robinson/Carlyle and Laviolette/Tortorella.
courtesy of sportsillustrated.cnn.com
He played nine NHL seasons, and began his coaching career as an assistant with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks of the AHL. After one season, he became an NHL assistant with the New York Islanders. He joined the Penguins organization as an assistant to Todd Richards in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and when Richards became an assistant with the San Jose Sharks, Blysma became Pittsburgh’s AHL head coach. He was Wilkes-Barre Scranton’s head coach for less than one season when he was promoted to the Penguins, and won the Stanley Cup.
Five of the last eleven Cup winners (There was no Cup awarded in 2005 because the season was canceled.), started their significant part of their coaching careers in Canadian junior hockey.
Scotty Bowman, who won two (1998 and 2002) of his nine Cups over the past decade, started coaching with the Ottawa Junior Canadians in the Quebec Junior Hockey League, and later the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey Association (This of course was during the days when most junior clubs were NHL farm teams – the Petes belonged to Montreal.).
And, Bowman might have joined Robinson and Carlyle at the top of this list, but his playing career ended after a head injury.
Pat Burns coached the Hull Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Bob Hartley the Junior ‘A’ Hawkesbury Hawks, before the Laval Titans of the QMJHL. Neither had much playing experience, Burns appearing in three games with the OHL’s London Knights.
Hartley won the Cup in 2001, and Burns followed in Robinson’s footsteps with the Devils, two years later.
Out in western Canada, Ken Hitchcock started coaching Midget Triple ‘A’ in Edmonton, before moving to the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League.
And, Mike Babcock coached the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors, after three seasons of leading Red Deer College in Alberta.
Hitchcock had never played to any degree, but Babcock starred for Saskatoon and Kelowna in the WHL, and later the universities of Saskatoon and McGill (1983-87).
Hitchcock led the Dallas Stars to the Cup in 1999, and Babcock the Red Wings in 2008.
So, there is a path to follow.
You can start coaching midget, like Ken Hitchcock, or Junior A like Bob Hartley, and work your way up to Major Junior.
From there, maybe the East Coast Hockey League, or the American Hockey League, and then the Big Tent.
Of course, you have to be the very best there is, at every level that you coach.
Those guys, who have briefly rested the Stanley Cup on their mantles, have had to create room.
They have other trophies there as well.