"I have more experience than anyone with the Chiefs, so I figured I should do it until there is a new coach. If the players don't want to respond to me as an owner and coach and a guy who's been in the NHL for a hundred years, it's pretty tough to get a coach they're going to respond to. That's why the decision was made." -- Neil Smith
Only this time, it will be behind a bench.
The Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL announced on Sunday that they have relieved Jeff Flanagan of his head coaching duties effective immediately. In the interim, Chiefs owner Neil Smith -- who was general manager of the New York Rangers from 1989-2000 -- will serve as the head coach. He will make his debut against the Trenton Devils on Wednesday night.
Smith, who purchased the Chiefs in 2002, becomes the 10th head coach in the history of the only ECHL team still playing in its original city. His work with the Rangers in 1994 led them to their only Stanley Cup championship since 1940.
Johnstown went 10-18-7 under Flanagan's direction. It was his first season as a coach in the ECHL.
"The decision was (made) because it just didn't seem like we were going to be able to be turned around," Smith told The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat on Sunday. "We didn't see it being turned around with Jeff as the head coach. We didn't want anything like this to happen.
"We were waiting to see signs that it could turn around. You look for certain things in a team. What are losses like? How are they losing? All of these things about the way the team is playing will tell you if you think the team can turn it around with that coach. We came to the conclusion that that players were no longer working together."
The 55-year-old Smith was a pro and amateur scout for the New York Islanders in the early 1980s. From there, he was hired by the Detroit Red Wings in 1982 and served as the director of scouting and GM of the Adirondack Red Wings in the American Hockey League. Smith was also GM of the Islanders for a 40-day stint in 2006.
Smith was selected by the Isles in the 13th round of the 1974 Amateur Draft after playing college hockey at Western Michigan. A defenseman, he earned All-American honors as a freshman with 31 points (4 goals, 27 assists) in 34 games. He went on to play two professional seasons splitting time between the NEHL, EHL, and IHL. Smith played 89 games for seven different teams totaling 44 points (5G, 39A) and 73 penalty minutes.
How long Smith assumes the coaching role remains to be seen. The Chiefs are hoping to find a permanent coach in the near future.
"Quite frankly, we don't have somebody who has agreed to come in and coach the team," Smith said. "We're going to start that process and try to get somebody as a permanent head coach. Once we established that, who should come in on the interim basis? I wanted to show the fans and players and everybody that we're going to have to get involved to get this done. I have more experience than anyone with the Chiefs, so I figured I should do it until there is a new coach. If the players don't want to respond to me as an owner and coach and a guy who's been in the NHL for a hundred years, it's pretty tough to get a coach they're going to respond to. That's why the decision was made."