NHL + Coach = Canada

The European experiment is long dead


Czech Ivan Hlinka, who died in 2004, and Finn Alpo Suhonen were the first and only European head coaches in the NHL. Photos: IIHF Archives

Such a vast amount has changed in the NHL since 1966-67, the last year of the Original Six. The league doubled to 12 teams the following year, and has been expanding ever since, reaching 30 teams at the start of the 21st century.

In ’66-’67, 100 percent of the players were Canadian. The figure started dropping a short time later before steadying around 55 percent. Rules have changed, arenas have gotten larger and are now furnished with revenue-producing luxury suites. Even on-ice officials have increased from one referee to two.

But one thing that remains a constant is coaching. From 1917-1967 to the present day, the overwhelming majority of NHL coaches have been and continue to be from Canada. The international game is no different. At the 2008 World Championship, an incredible six of the 16 teams had Canadian coaches.  Of course, Canada had Ken Hitchcock, but Belarus had Curt Fraser (and Glen Hanlon as assistant, both also have a U.S. passport), Denmark had Mike Girant, France used David Henderson, Italy went with Michel Goulet, and Switzerland has long had Manitoban Ralph Krueger.

The 2008-2009 NHL season will have 28 Canadian coaches and two Americans (the newly-appointed Tony Granato in Colorado and longtime coach of Carolina, Peter Laviolette). The chances of a European coach making it to the NHL again any time soon seem remote if not altogether impossible.

But recall the summer of 2000 which seemed to promise great change. In May of that year, Chicago hired Finn Alpo Suhonen as head coach, the first European-trained coach in league history (Johnny Gottselig, born in Russia but raised in Canada, had coached Chicago in the 1940s). A month later, Ivan Hlinka was hired by Pittsburgh as head coach. Change seemed afoot. The NHL was praised for breaking down that final barrier. A new trend seemed to be starting. Wrong.

Suhonen was not particularly popular and lasted only a year. Hlinka’s situation was more complex and his job was more secure. It was thought one of the reasons he was hired was to placate Czech star Jaromir Jagr, and in 2000-2001, Mario Lemieux was back with the team. It seemed with Mario in the lineup and Jagr happy, the Penguins had nowhere to go but up up up. Wrong.

Hlinka’s English was never very good and his communication skills suffered. The team didn’t play as well as it should, and just a few games into his second season Hlinka was fired. The European experiment was over after a little more than a year, and since then there has been nary a whisper that another European is ready to tackle the NHL.

The issue of coaching in the NHL is much like playing. If you want to join the club, you have to be prepared to make a long investment in your endeavour. Most NHL coaches are hired through two ways. Either they “pay their dues” and “ride the buses” in the minors or junior leagues for a while, or they are a star name recently retired from playing the game.

There have been several key hirings from the AHL in the last while highlighting this first option. Barry Trotz, the only coach in Nashville’s brief history, coached nearly a decade in the minors. John Stevens (Philadelphia) also came from there. The last few months have seen even greater evidence: Bruce Boudreau (Washington), Peter DeBoer (Florida), Craig Hartsburg (Ottawa), and John Anderson (Atlanta) all had lengthy tenures in the minors (AHL) or junior leagues in Canada.

Big name players who want to coach often pass by this apprenticeship stage and go right to the NHL. Wayne Gretzky, of course (Phoenix), would never have to coach in Wilkes-Barre or Grenville, nor would Mike Keenan (Calgary), or Guy Carbonneau (Montreal).

Over and above that, though, Canadians are considered the best coaches for several reasons. First, they have a lifetime of playing and understanding the game that began on their backyard rink when they were three or four years old. Second, they almost all have had some contact and association with Hockey Canada during their careers, giving them excellent communication skills and a basic knowledge of the fundamentals. Third, they are great motivators. Only the culture of the game can produce this three-pronged combination.

Of course, the other main factor is tradition and a conservative approach to the game. The feeling is that if you hire a non-Canadian, you are taking a bit of a chance. If you hire a Canadian, you know what you’re getting and you can expect, if nothing else, a professional approach to the game and at least a decent result.

Europeans, for their part, seem happy to work within their niche. After playing, they return home to coach or perhaps act as European scouts for the NHL. None seems interested in coming to the NHL as a coach or to spend years in the minors learning how to coach at the NHL level. High profile European players have shown no indication in wanting to coach anywhere. Jari Kurri, Pavel Bure, Borje Salming, Peter Stastny, among others, have shown no interest in the coaching duties of any team anywhere, yet it might take a player of that stature to have a chance to coach in the NHL.

For now, Canadians dominate the NHL coaching landscape every bit as much as they did in 1967. They may coach a team made up of only half Canadians, but their success and history are difficult to ignore.




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