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Youth wasn't served in Washington

by Evan Weiner

At the age of 26, Gary Green became the youngest coach in NHL history.
When Bryan Murray took over the coaching duties of the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 27, it wasn't the first time Murray went behind the bench of a team during the season. Murray got his first coaching job after the Washington Capitals fired Gary Green in November 1981.

On Nov. 14, 1979, the Capitals made history by naming Green the team's head coach. Green was just 26 and was the youngest coach in NHL history.

Green was also the youngest coach ever to be fired.

Green lasted a little less than two years on the job and has never been behind an NHL bench since becoming one of the game's top TV analysts.

At the time, he was being asked to coach players older and with more far more NHL experience, but Green had a good track record and was tutored by respected hockey people. Caps ownership decided he could get some mediocre players to perform better. It was worth a shot.

"Well, I was fortunate enough to be Roger Neilson's assistant coach in Peterborough (Ontario Hockey League) at a young age, in fact I was 21," Green said of his hockey training. "The next thing I knew, the Washington Capitals asked me to coach. Not the Capitals, but to sign a deal to coach (the Caps' American Hockey League affiliate), the Hershey Bears.

"I quite honestly thought I would be in Hershey at least a few years and have an opportunity maybe down the road to coach in the National Hockey League. The boxes weren't even unpacked in our house when I got the call from (general manager) Max McNab in November asking whether I was ready to coach in the NHL.

"It took me about three seconds to give him the answer."

Green was going to coach a bad hockey team. Danny Belisle started the season as coach, but managed just four wins and two ties in 16 games. The Caps had some young, talented players, led by rookie Mike Gartner, and the roster included Ryan Walter, Bengt Gustafsson, Robert Picard and Dennis Maruk. The Caps were amassing young talent through high draft picks because the team had been terrible since its formation in 1974. Belisle's team won just 24 games in 1978-79, which tied a club record for victories at the time, and with 15 ties, set a then club record for points in a season with 63. Much more was expected from the team, and Green was now asked to deliver.

"At that point in time, I did not have the understanding that no other coach in professional sports had been that young (Dave DeBusschere coached the NBA's Detroit Pistons at the age of 24 in 1964 and combined that with playing), but that really didn't matter that much to me,” Green said. “I was doing the same job I was doing in Peterborough. I was coaching the same number of players on ice, but it was a different age and certainly a different salary."

At 26, Green was older than starting goaltender Wayne Stephenson and backup Gary Inness. Green was also younger than Guy Charron, Pierre Bouchard and long time captain Yvon Labre. Green needed to gain the respect of the veterans.

"I can remember calling a meeting at the Sheraton Hotel when I first arrived in Washington and we were leaving right away on a road trip to Boston, where I coached my first NHL game. I had a meeting with the team that night and I told them plain and simple if they didn't know, that I was only 26, I hadn't played in the National Hockey League and that there were players in this dressing room that were well in their 30s and had many, many years of experience in the NHL.

"But I said I don't expect respect. All that I am going to ask you (is) please give me two weeks to try to show you what I want to accomplish here, what I would like you to accomplish and I do know how to coach," he said. "Quite honestly I said to them because I know enough about the National Hockey League coaching fraternity is that if you don't gain respect pretty quickly from your players, then they will get rid of you quickly as well.”

Coaches get hired because the previous coach failed at winning a championship or just plain winning. Washington had five years of losing records when Green was hired. He was not getting a Stanley Cup contender.

The Capitals made great strides under Green, whose 23-30-11 mark was the best 64-game stretch a coach had in Washington's history at the time. But Green's first full year wasn't as good, as the team slipped to 26-36-18. And even though the Caps reached 70 points for the first time in team history, the club still missed the playoffs. The Caps started off 1-12 in 1981-82, and Green was fired. The average life span of an NHL coach in those days was two years. And Green didn't even last that long. Still, Green was just 28 and figured to get back to the NHL eventually.

Green never got rid of the coaching bug, even though he became a successful broadcaster and hockey-related businessman. He led Canada to the Spengler Cup title in 2003, 22 years after he was let go in Washington.


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