Coaches Are Like Kleenex; Another One Always Pops Up. But Now It Gets Messy
In the “golden age” of sports, a coach used to be fired for just one reason. His team lost.
In today’s enlightened era, a coach can be dismissed for any number of reasons. 1) His team lost. 2) His best player’s agent thinks the coach is an issue in upcoming negotiations. 3) Social media insists that analytics show his strategy sucks. 4) The owner realizes it’s cheaper to pay two coaches than lose a franchise player. 5) The team owner’s wife hates the coach’s wife. 6) He won the coach of the Year award the year previous. 7) Media following the team turns against him.
Okay, No. 7, maybe not so much.
Otherwise the list of reasons for which a coach can be shown the door extends from here to Temiskaming. Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley, who won the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year in 2015, is the latest to learn that harsh truth. Hartley ran a traditional top-down schematic with the Flames, the kind that worked for coaches from Punch Imlach to Pat Burns to Scotty Bowman.
He liked to talk about eating frozen sandwiches at his job making windshields in beautiful downtown Hawkesbury, Ont. He referred to forward Joe Colborne, whose family is well off, as “the spoiled little rich kid”. He practiced tough love with his young superstars Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan after they were late for a practice. He also missed this spring’s playoffs after the Flames were the hot commodity in the 2015 postseason, the up-and-coming squad.
And he was fired after having “burned every bridge in the dressing room three time over” according to a source. With Gaudreau and Monahan deciding on whether to commit to Calgary longterm, he was becoming an issue. It was cheaper for the Flames owners to pay two coaches than lose them or Sam Bennett, another prodigy. The analytics people crowed that his strategies were antediluvian. And so on.
So he went. Mind you, Bruce Boudreau was fired in Anaheim just the week before for being too much of a players coach. The Ducks want someone to rein in their fabulously rich superstars— maybe someone who acts like Hartley. (there are rumours it could be Kings coach Darryl Sutter.) Social media had grown bored with the Ducks losing Games Seven at home after leading in playoff series. (Boudreau got the Wild coaching gig this weekend.)
This coach churn is not endemic to hockey. Currently, Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons looks like a man awaiting his third appeal on baseball’s death row. Expectations following last fall’s push to the American League playoffs are so out-of-control in Toronto that a really bad week could have the Jays new management team tossing him overboard to buy themselves a little breathing room.
Yes, Gibbons is hardly Earl Weaver or Casey Stengel. His handling of the bullpen is a constant source of irritation to the analytics crowd on social media. About the only consolation for Gibbons as he awaits execution is that he wasn’t AL Manager of the Year in 2015. That would be fatal.
That insecurity might explain why Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger tried to get ahead of the hangman by asking permission to seek other jobs. He got canned this weekend anyway. Grizz officials said, “being an NBA head coach is about more than just coaching a 48-minute game.” You think?
Perhaps this is all why Mike Babcock was willing to go to the punching-bag Toronto Maple Leafs because Team Terrible was the highest bidder for his services. Babcock knew he was going to lose— in fact the lowly expectation is his body armour for now— but he wanted to set a high bar for coaching pay in the NHL. With coaches being used like Tiger Balm— a salve to give temporary relief to aching parts— Babcock wanted to make sure management had a disincentive to discard them so easily.
So he got a poison pill contract: six-years at approximately $6 million a year to put up with meddling analytics bloggers, nervous owners and the agents of his snowflake superstars for an extended stay at the Air Canada Centre. Now if he can just avoid winning the NHL Coach of the Year…
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).