For many young hockey players, an assignment to the bottom of the minors could be seen as a career death sentence. For Gary Green, it was just the beginning of a long and successful career in hockey – though not the way Green likely envisioned.
The former Capitals head coach went from being “the 17th man on a 17-man roster” in the minors to making NHL history when, at age 26, he was named the bench boss for the Caps – the youngest in NHL history.
Green grew up in Tillsonburg, Ontario where he was friends and played hockey with future NHL defenseman, coach and league executive Colin Campbell. But while Campbell’s path to success was as a player, Green took a decidedly different path.
|Gary Green was 26 when he became the youngest head coach in NHL history. |
When Campbell went to play juniors for the Peterborough Petes, Green went to college to play hockey at the University of Guelph. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sports psychology in just two years so he could “get the hell out and go play hockey.”
After graduation, Green went to the training camp of the Vancouver Blazers of the World Hockey Association, the team for which his friend Campbell had played a year earlier. The team was coached by successful minor league coach Joe Crozier.
“I always said that he was a really smart man and a good coach,” Green said of Crozier, “because he took one look at me in training camp and he said ‘no thanks, kid. You’ve got to go to the bottom of the minors.’”
Green reported to Charlotte, NC for a “quick cup of coffee” with the Charlotte Checkers of the Southern Hockey League before being traded a few weeks later to the Roanoke Valley Rebels, also of the SHL.
In Roanoke, he soon came to the realization that would have no job security and was likely not good enough to make the NHL. He decided that traveling on a bus for $300 a week with a wife living in Canada was not the life for him and retired as a hockey player.
Having worked at hockey camps while in school, Green took over Tam O’Shanter, a well-known hockey school he and Campbell attended as kids, as executive director.
“They thought I was 25 at the time, but actually I was 21,” Green recalled.
Green made an immediate impact in his new career. He developed coaching programs and organized what he called “the first international coaching symposium,” an event that featured coaching standouts such as Roger Neilson, Bob Pulford and coaches from the Soviet national team in addition to sports psychologists and head medical trainers. Among the symposium participants was Lou Lamoriello, current CEO, president and general manager of the New Jersey Devils.
Green describes the symposium as “a door-opener.” With this event to his credit, he was able to merge Tam O’Shanter with Can/Am, which today remains a leading hockey development organization.
With a successful business at age 21, Green decided he wanted to get into coaching. He approached Peterborough Petes head coach Roger Neilson and volunteered to coach the team part-time. Neilson, who Green calls “one of the best in the world” accepted his offer and took Green on as an unpaid assistant.
When Neilson was promoted and his replacement, Garry Young, was fired, the Petes asked Green, then age 24, to take the positions of head coach and general manger. He accepted and led the team to two consecutive league championships and a Memorial Cup championship.
After the Petes’ Memorial Cup victory in 1979, the Capitals, whose general manager Max McNab had previously tried to talk to Green about potential positions with the organization, were successful in getting Green to an accept an offer to coach the Hershey Bears.
|Gary Green, left, former Capitals GM Max McNab, middle, and former assistant coach Bill Mahoney. |
Just two months into the 1979-80 season - Green’s first in Hershey - Capitals head coach Danny Belisle was fired after an ugly loss and Green, at 26 years-old, became the team’s new head coach – and the youngest in NHL history.
While there were some questions over how someone so young could coach a professional hockey team with many players on the team older than him, Green was impressed with how well the team embraced him. He asked his team to give him two weeks to gain their respect “and they were outstanding. They opened their ears and arms,” he said.
Several people in the organization opened their arms wide for Green. Players like Mike Gartner, Rick Green and Bengt Gustafsson were among the players who he remembers having great relationships with. Former team captain Ryan Walter would go on to marry Green’s secretary. And Green enjoyed such a close bond with former general manager Max McNab that he counted him as not just his general manger, but “a father figure.” The two remained close until McNab’s death in 2007.
Green remembers well the “incredibly noisy” fans who also opened their arms to the young coach. He says the crowds at the Capital Centre consisted of “great hockey fans.”
“I was just hoping we’d have seven or eight thousand more on a regular basis,” he jokes.
The team and fans were only part of what sticks out in Green’s mind when thinking of Washington. He remembers enjoying being around such D.C. landmarks as the White House and Georgetown as well as flying into National Airport.
“It is such a powerful city and I so much wanted to really make that team successful,” Green recalls.
Unfortunately, the age record would be the only history made by Green’s Caps teams. Despite valiant efforts, his teams missed the playoffs in consecutive years, both times having their playoff hopes dashed on the season’s final day. After a poor start to the 1981-82 season, Green was fired.
One could argue, though, that the firing was only the beginning of his career.
Green immediately jumped into the broadcast booth, where he expected to wait until his next good coaching opportunity came along. He had a brief stint on Hockey Night in Canada before going to the USA Network’s Game of the Week broadcast. But the transition wasn’t easy to begin with.
“They put a headset on me and it was sink or swim. That’s your training as a broadcaster,” Green said. “But I guess I’ve been able to swim well enough that I’ve kept at this for a long time.”
Green, who is currently an analyst for NHL Network in addition to hosting a show on XM radio, recently celebrated his 25th anniversary in broadcasting.
He has also stepped back into the business world. He ran Can/Am until 1990, when he sold the company. He also is now Senior Director of Stadium Consultants International, a company that works with stadium builders and architects to help them better understand the wants and needs of players, coaches, broadcasters and the like when it comes to building functionality.
“We try to invent a better vehicle in order for NHL teams to better utilize their buildings,” said Green
Some of the projects his company has been involved in include NHL arenas such as AirCanada Centre, the renovated Pengrowth Saddledome and the updated Madison Square Garden. They have also helped develop venues in the Eastern Bloc and, closer to home, were asked for some input on Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the Capitals practice facility and team offices.
Green currently makes a part-time home in Toronto, but lives mostly in Orlando, where his wife, Sharon, has been a real estate agent for more than 15 years. He has two daughters, one of whom works for Johnson and Johnson in Orlando. The other is a social worker in Canada for Children’s Aid Society, while also working for a post-graduate degree.
The Green family also has an “adopted son,” Wendell, who they brought into their home to mentor “and then he moved right in and never left.” Though not legally adopted, Green talks about Wendell and his pressure-cleaning and detailing business with as much joy as he does his daughters, especially recalling how Wendell moved into the house already knowing much about the NHL from video games he played in his neighborhood’s community center.
One of Gary Green’s greatest tangible achievements is undoubtedly helping to launch the Florida Panthers franchise. He believed south Florida would be a good place to put a hockey team and his work to bring a team there came to fruition. Green knew he needed about $70 million to start the team “and I was $69.99 million short.” So he approached Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, who agreed with him and put up much of the money to begin the Panthers franchise.
Even with a successful life out of the NHL, this self-described “broadcasting businessman” has never taken his coaching hat off completely. After leaving the Capitals, he was involved in discussions with several NHL teams for coaching positions, but ultimately never found the right job for him.
But national pride was enough to get him behind the bench again. Beginning in 2002, he was the part-time coach of the Canadian national team for two years, helping lead them to a Spengler Cup championship.
More than 26 years removed from the NHL bench, Gary Green considers himself a better coach now than he was in 1979. Several years of working coaching clinics and seeing the game as a broadcaster have helped him develop a better all-around understanding of the game than when he became the youngest coach in NHL history.
So would he come back to the NHL if the right coaching job presented itself?
Green is genuine when he says that he is happy with his many business ventures, and rightfully so.
But, he says, “never say never.”