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John Garrett: what makes a coach?

by John Garrett / Vancouver Canucks
It’s been an interesting start to the season for a lot of different reasons – a surprising 3-1 start for the Canucks among them – but the biggest is undoubtedly the news out of Chicago this week, where the Canucks will play Sunday.

It must be some kind of record: You fire your coach four games into the season, right after your team's first win, and hot on the heels of a 17-point improvement over the previous year.

The timing of this move is questionable because obviously this was in the works at the end of 07-08. Why would you not have your new coach in place in September? 

Dale Tallon said the team was flat in training camp and flat to start the season. A new coach will bring some life, but he’ll need some time to get his systems in place.

There’s no doubting that Joel Quenneville is a very good coach and that he’ll help this young team improve. But he was hired in the summer as a pro scout. You’re trying to tell me that this wasn’t in the works then? Something smells like fish here.


John Garrett is a former Canuck and currently the colour commentator for Sportsnet.

Now, Denis Savard is a good guy and loves the game – you can’t question that. He coached the same way he played: with flair and passion. Combined with his incredible talent, this made him one of the most exciting players of his era, but it did not make him a good coach.

Just take a look around the league and show me a good coach who had that star label as a player. The truly gifted players do not have to work at the game. They don’t have to study play after play, or work on their skills game after game just to survive in the NHL.

One of the best examples is Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault.

AV played 42 games in the league and scored twice. He had to work hard at the game to even do that. He came up through the junior ranks and learned his craft.

Mike Babcock never made it the NHL but played in the WHL in Saskatoon and Kelowna and four years of college. He coached in junior and the American league before making the jump.

Former Canucks coach Marc Crawford averaged less than 30 games a season in the NHL over his eight-year career before coaching at various levels to make his way to the show. And he won a Stanley Cup.

Craig Mactavish also has his name on the big trophy, but as a player. But was he a star? He made his reputation by being a hard-working third liner.

Ron Wilson was at best a fifth or sixth defenceman. I am just going to rattle off a few more to make my point: Randy Carlyle, Brent Sutter, Bruce Boudreau, Barry Melrose, Claude Julien, Lindy Ruff, Dave Tippett and Barry Trotz.


Wayne Gretzky is the lone star who comes to mind when I think of players who have made the transition to good coach. But even then, I don’t think people realize how hard Wayne had to work to be the best player to play the game. The talent came naturally, but Wayne worked at it.

I remember playing against the skinny little kid with the Indianapolis Racers and thinking that he would have a tough time surviving in professional hockey, let alone dominating in the physical game of the late 70's and 80's. Gretzky led by example both on and off the ice. He studied the game and his opponents. He is the only star I can think of who has made the jump.

I don’t mean to come off callous, because Denis Savard was a great player and symbolized the Blackhawks for a long, long time. But he struggled in the coach’s role and probably shouldn’t have jumped behind the bench to start with.

Having said that, four games into a new season seems like awfully odd time to right the wrong. You just hope it doesn’t adversely fix a young Blackhawks team that’s dripping with talent and possibility, at least not long-term anyway. A little shell-shock wouldn't hurt as Canuck meet them Sunday in a Pay-Per-View special.
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