It is with great sadness on Monday the Toronto Maple Leafs learned of the passing of former head coach John Brophy. He was 83 years old.
"John was a colorful coach; a man who dedicated his life to hockey," said Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello. "This is a great loss to the hockey community and more importantly to his family. He will be missed."
A native of Antigonish, N.S., Brophy was a defenceman for a number of years in the minor league ranks -- primarily in the Eastern Hockey League -- where he carved out a reputation as a rough-and-tumble blueliner. He played 18 seasons in the Eastern League beginning in 1955-56 and had at least 100 penalty minutes in every one of them.
Brophy's transition into coaching began during his playing days. In 1967-68, he became player-coach of the EHL's Long Island Ducks and took the club to the playoffs in his first season in the role. He held the player-coach title until he was sent to the New Haven Blades to close out the 1968-69 season. In fact, it's believed that Brophy served as inspiration for the player-coach protagonist of the movie Slap Shot, Reggie Dunlop, played by Hollywood legend Paul Newman.
“He was the type of guy who gave you the most every game, came to play every night,” said longtime NHL coach and executive John Muckler of Brophy in 2006. “He was a rugged, aggressive player and would do anything under his power to win the game — some legal, some illegal.”
Brophy's playing career continued until the 1972-73 season with the Eastern League's Jersey Devils where he had a goal, 12 points and 220 penalty minutes in 73 games before retiring.
That offseason, the Eastern Hockey League dissolved into the North American Hockey League and the Southern Hockey League. Brophy became the head coach of the NAHL's newly formed Long Island Cougars for one season and took them to the 1974 Final where they were beaten by the Syracuse Blazers. He took over the Hampton Gulls of the Southern Hockey League during the 1975-76 season and led them to the Final where they were defeated by the Charlotte Checkers.
He remained head coach of the Gulls until the end of the 1977-78 season, their first in the American League. He then coached the Birmingham Bulls for three seasons -- one in the WHA and two in the Central Hockey League.
Brophy had a homecoming of sorts in 1981 when he took over head coaching duties for the Nova Scotia Voyageurs -- the American League affiliate for the Montreal Canadiens based out of Halifax. The Voyageurs were a playoff team in each of Brophy's three seasons behind the bench.
In 1984, Brophy made his way to the Maple Leafs organization as an assistant coach under Dan Maloney. He held the assistant's role for two seasons and had a brief stint during the 1985-86 season as the head coach of the St. Catharines Saints, replacing previous head coach Claire Alexander. The Saints were a win away from advancing the Calder Cup Final under Brophy's watch, but ultimately dropped a seven-game series to the Hershey Bears.
The 1986-87 season saw Brophy take over the head coaching job for the Maple Leafs, which he held for roughly two-and-a-half seasons. Despite the youth of the group, which included teenagers Wendel Clark and Vincent Damphousse, the team ultimately played 19 playoff games under Brophy's watch before his dismissal in 1989.
In 1989-90, Brophy became head coach of the ECHL's Hampton Roads Admirals where he remained for the 11 seasons. Over that time in Virginia, the Admirals never finished with a record below .500 -- the club was 29-29-2 in his first season at the helm -- never missed the playoffs and won three championships, including back-to-back ECHL titles in 1991 and 1992 before winning a third in 1998.
His ECHL coaching career wrapped up with two seasons as head coach of the Wheeling Nailers from 2001-03. He also made a single-season return to the bench with the Richmond Renegades of the Southern Professional Hockey League in 2007-07 at the age of 73.
His coaching career concluded with that final season in Richmond, having amassed over 1,000 wins behind many benches. Only Scotty Bowman has coached professional hockey teams to wins (1,244) more often than John Brophy (1,027).
In honour of his time with the league -- Brophy retired the ECHL's leader in regular season games, wins and seasons and holds the records for playoff games, playoff wins, playoffs appearances and championships -- the ECHL's Coach of the Year Award became the John Brophy Award in 2003. Brophy was later inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame in 2009.
“Am I driven?” Brophy said to the New York Times in 2006. “Very much so. Driven to win. To me nothing, nothing, replaces winning. Nothing."