Keeping The Guys Who Hate Your Guts Away From The Guys Who Haven't Made Up Their Mind Yet
The venerable New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel, who won eight World Series, was once asked the secret to managing. The Ol’ Perfessor replied, “The secret to managing is keeping the five players who hate your guts away from the five players who haven’t made up their mind yet.”
In the last month, NHL coaches Claude Julien (in Boston) and Michel Therrien (in Montreal) discovered that the guys who hated their guts had gotten to the guys who had previously not made up their minds. Result: The Canadiens fired Therrien after five-plus sorta’ successful seasons, while the Bruins dumped Julien, who’d made the enormous mistake of winning the Stanley Cup in Boston in 2011.
But then, firing is to hockey coaches what sepukku was to members of the Japanese Imperial military staff: the only likely way to terminate a career. Julien and Therrien are but two of the five coaches getting pink slipped in the Ligue National du Hockey this year. In a league where 22-year-olds make $ 6-7 million-a-year and have total job security, losing the room is an occupational handicap.
What made the double firings extraordinary was the unseemly haste from the Habs’ embattled GM Marc Bergevin to fire Therrien and sign Julien after he was canned by the Bruins. Oh, did we mention that it’s also Julien’s second tour of duty in Montreal? Or that it was Therrien’s second stint at the Bell Centre, too? Or that Therrien was considered a genius at the start of the season when Montreal went 13-1-1?
Funny business, sports.
As often happens in these mini-dramas, the Bruins got a temporary bump from bouncing Julien, winning three straight. Which is the point of canning a capable coach whose team is still in a playoff hunt. It gives a beleaguered GM and a panicky owner a little breathing space before their heads are fitted for M. Guiilotine. It’s like the coaching version of cocaine. A burst of fake energy. Followed by a long, crushing dependency.
Making the Bruins’ leadership group uneasy is that Boston has suddenly become Title Town with the Patriots, Red Sox and the improving Celtics all setting a very high bar for success. While the Bruins won a Cup six years ago, they have been going in circles for a while now. Despite a core of excellent players, they are stuck in the middle mediocrity of BettmanTown.
Having dispatched Tyler Seguin to Dallas in a fit of pique a few years back, the Bruins don’t really have a young player on which to hang their hat. Which is not Julien’s fault. But seeing as how he can’t fire the GM, president and owner, he was the one handed the cement life preserver.
The Habs operate under the impossible burden imposed by 23 Stanley Cups, multiple legends, a series of title runs in a city where they are the major show in town (sorry Alouettes/ Impact). But the reservoir has been dry since 1993’s unlikely champions, and bleu-blanc-rouge nation is getting more than a little exasperated with what it considers their birthright.
But the Habs have only themselves to blame for setting up Therrien for failure. From the minute last summer when they chose him over boisterous star P.K. Subban, you knew Therrien would pay the price for management’s intemperate move. With coaches a dime a dozen— and talented young defencemen as scarce as Green Party MPs— it was a doomed move.
Not unlike the Bruins trading Tyler Seguin as a 20 year old because he was acting like a 20 year old.
Making the Habs’ job search tougher is the team’s recent insistence on only hiring francophone coaches. Hence the recycling of Therrien and Julien. While there are good French coaches, it’s still like driving with your handbrake on. So except to see Alain Vigneault make a return visit if the Rangers ever let him go.
Coaches have tried to fight back against being disposable in recent times, using the only thing that owners respect. Money. Under the leadership of Mike Babcock, who received a condominium of money over six years in Toronto, the top coaches have been obtaining enough compensation to give teams pause about firing them to get past a rough patch in the schedule.
But with 30 (soon to be 31) teams and just one Stanley Cup available, the odds are stacked against the season ending well for a coach. There’s enormous pressure to find the magic elixir when the fans howl at the moon on sports radio in their town.
A few things are certain after this kerfuffel. The Bruins and Habs are not going to win a Cup this year— probably the next few years. Therrien will be hired by another owner looking for fairy dust to win a title. Few, if any, coaches will retire of their own volition. The 22-year-olds making $ 6-7 million a year will cash the entire value of their contract.
And teams with the best players will still win the Cup.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. 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. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)