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Coaching success no guarantee for former legends

by Adam Kimelman
Claude Julien, Joel Quenneville, Dan Bylsma and Mike Babcock combined to score 73 NHL goals -- or as many as Wayne Gretzky scored by himself in the 1984-85 season.

While Gretzky holds 60 NHL records, won four Stanley Cups as a player and is one of the greatest players to ever lace on skates, Julien, Quenneville, Bylsma and Babcock were far superior when it came to working behind the bench.

Success hard to repeat

It's not often a player achieves legendary status in a town, then has success as a coach. Here's a look at a few examples from all four major sports of hits and misses:

Milt Schmidt
-- A Hall of Fame player for 16 seasons with the Boston Bruins, the Bruins made the playoffs just four times in his 11 seasons as coach.

Terry O'Reilly -- A leading member of the "Big, Bad Bruins" teams of the 1970s, he coached the Bruins for three seasons, with the highlight being a trip to the 1988 Stanley Cup Final.

Craig MacTavish -- A five-time Stanley Cup champion with the Oilers, he made the playoffs twice in eight seasons as coach, including a trip to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

Jacques Lemaire
-- An eight-time Stanley Cup winner in 12 seasons with the Canadiens, he lasted just two seasons as coach in Montreal.

Butch Goring -- A major part of the Islanders' Stanley Cup dynasty, Goring was fired after a season and a half as Isles coach.

Yogi Berra
-- The Yankee legend won the American League pennant in his first season as Yankees manager in 1964. He returned as manager in 1984, but was fired 16 games into his second season.

Ty Cobb -- The Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer finished higher than third just once in his six seasons as Tigers manager.

Walter Johnson -- Not even one of the game's greatest pitchers could bring success to the old Washington Senators in his four seasons as manager.

Magic Johnson
-- The all-time Lakers' great went just 5-11 in his lone season as coach of the team.

Bill Russell -- Probably the greatest run ever from legendary player to legendary coach. In three seasons as coach of the Celtics, he led Boston to two NBA titles.

Jerry West -- The Lakers' great won at least 45 games in his three seasons on the bench in Los Angeles, but never a title.

Mike Ditka
-- The Hall of Fame tight end started his career in Chicago, and in 11 seasons as coach led the Bears to the only Super Bowl win in franchise history.

Bart Starr -- Led the Packers to the first two Super Bowl titles, but in nine seasons as Packers coach, had just one winning record.

Art Shell
-- The Hall of Fame Raiders lineman returned to the team and guided it to five winning seasons in seven years as coach, including a 12-4 mark in 1990.
Gretzky had a 143-161-24 record and missed the playoffs each of his four seasons as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, while Julien, Quenneville, Bylsma and Babcock all have been perennial playoff performers and have won the last four Stanley Cups.

What it goes to show you is that performance as a player means nothing to performance behind the bench. Rare is the Hall of Fame caliber player who is able to have anything approaching that level of success as a coach.

"As a player, the fans critique or assess your individual game, not the team game," Edmonton Oilers President Kevin Lowe told "You're only responsible for yourself. … Being the coach is completely different."

That performance is even tougher when that Hall of Fame player takes over as coach of the team he had his greatest success with.

With his hiring as coach of the Washington Capitals on Monday, Dale Hunter now steps into that vaunted role. A star for 12 seasons with the Capitals, Hunter is in franchise's top 10 all-time in goals (181, 10th), assists (375, third), points (556, fifth), power-play goals (72, fourth), game-winning goals (29, sixth), games played (872, fourth), and penalty minutes (2,003, first). His No. 32 is one of four that hangs from the roof of the Verizon Center.

Denis Savard knows exactly what Hunter will be dealing with. Savard spent 13 seasons of his Hockey Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Blackhawks, and his 377 goals, 719 assists and 1,096 points all rank in the top four in team history. In fact, Savard is one of just three players in the 86-season history of the team to score 1,000 points for the franchise.

When he retired following the 1996-97 season, he became an assistant coach, and 21 games into the 2006-07 season, he replaced Trent Yawney as coach.

Savard said he knew what he was getting into trying to coach the team he starred for.

"I knew going into coaching, there's consequences that come into play," he told

Lowe, a five-time Stanley Cup champion with the Oilers, faced those same consequences when he replaced Ron Low as coach in Edmonton for the 1999-2000 season.

"I don't think I put any more pressure on myself (because it was Edmonton)," said Lowe. "I guess I would say I wanted to do well because I had a history of doing well with those fans. But not so much on the expectations part, more on wanting to be able to deliver for a fan base that was pretty used to winning."

Savard said he wasn't worried about souring any kind of love affair he had with the Blackhawks fans who cheered him so long as a player.

"You're paid to win and that's the bottom line," Savard told "In the NHL you have to win. The expectations of the fans getting mad or upset because the team is on a losing streak, that's the way it is. I was aware of that."

Savard went 24-30-7 the rest of that season, and then guided the Hawks to a 40-win season in 2007-08, the first time that happened since 2001-02, but it wasn't good enough to get the Hawks into the postseason. Then four games into the 2008-09 season, he was replaced by Quenneville.

"I wouldn't change anything I've done or did or where I'm at today," said Savard. "I'm very fortunate to be where I'm at. … It was unfortunate to be let go."

However, Savard hasn't strayed far from the organization he loved as a player, loved as a coach and still loves as a player. He still works for the Hawks as an ambassador, where he spends most of his time out with the fans.

"I was loved as a player, and even as a coach I was loved," said Savard. "And since being let go I'm still loved. Home is home and that (Chicago) is home."

Lowe's home remains Edmonton, even though he spent just one season as coach, guiding the Oilers to a 32-26-16-8 record and a seventh-place finish in the Western Conference. After the season, he became the team's general manager, and has been team president since 2008.

While Lowe feels the lifespan of all coaches is the same -- great optimism and fan-favorite status at the start, "but at some point the pendulum swings and it appears there's more pressure on the coach than the player," he said -- he believes he got a bit more latitude in Edmonton because of his playing success, and believes the same could happen in Hunter's case.

"For guys that have played for the team, a guy like Dale, the fans know even though it was a different era … they know what kind of player he represented," said Lowe. "That helps. Here's a guy that doesn't accept losing. Whether he's good or not is another thing, but the guy really cares about the team. That's a real bonus for that person."

Savard said he believes Hunter will do just fine as a legend returning to his old, successful stomping grounds.

"I think they're going to like him," Savard said of Washington fans. "I don't see why they wouldn't like him. Dale, what kind of player he was, he had lots of heart and I'm sure his team is going to play with lots of heart. I think he's still going to be loved by the people once he gets there."
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