From the time they started whacking at a vulcanized rubber disc on ice, the professional hockey coaches were all by themselves behind the bench. Sometimes they served the dual role of player AND coach. But never did they have any help calling out lines, setting up a power play or designing a penalty kill.
That all changed in 1972, when Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero hired an interloper of sorts.
Mike Nykoluk, a career minor league player who appeared in 32 NHL games in his rookie year of 1956-57 but who spent the rest of a 16-year pro career in the American Hockey League, was brought in by Shero to serve as the NHL’s first-ever assistant coach.
The rest of the league didn’t follow suit very readily.
Every team other than the Flyers had one man behind the bench. Nykoluk, for several seasons, was the lone wolf when it came to assistant coaches.
Gradually, other NHL teams took the plunge—the Flyers winning two straight Stanley Cups in 1974 and ’75 likely didn’t hurt—and by the time the 1980s began, pretty much every club employed at least one assistant and sometimes two.
That was ironic, because when the ’80s arrived, Nykoluk had graduated to head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a job he held from 1981-84.
But the idea of a so-called “coaching tree,” i.e. one man spawning assistants who would become head coaches in their own right, is a new concept in the NHL, and the one doing the spawning is Mike Babcock.
Babcock, the Red Wings coach since 2005, has been quietly sending assistants off to other NHL clubs to run their own show.
The latest is Bill Peters, who was named head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes the other day.
Peters served a three-year apprenticeship under Babcock before accepting Carolina’s offer to replace the fired Kirk Muller.
It’s a culture that several others before Peters have taken with them from Detroit.
Todd McLellan (San Jose), Paul Maclean (Ottawa) and now Peters (Carolina) are Babcock assistants-turned-NHL-head coaches, and Jeff Blashill (Grand Rapids) and the late Brad McCrimmon (Kontinental Hockey League’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl) are two other Red Wings assistants who, since 2008, have left the organ-eye-ZAY-shun to become head coaches.
Babcock is the first head coach in the NHL to have so many assistants move directly from his team to another as a head coach, somewhere, with no stops in between.
Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman didn’t have a coaching tree, per se. Many of Scotty’s former players became head coaches in the NHL, but Bowman’s roster of assistants only produced Dave Lewis (who succeeded Scotty in Detroit in 2002) as a head coach who moved into that role immediately after working for Bowman.
The idea of a coaching tree isn’t new in Detroit, however.
Chuck Daly may have been the Prince of Pessimism when he coached the Pistons from 1983-92, but he was also the King of Opportunity for various assistants.
Dick Harter (Charlotte 1988), Dick Versace (Indiana 1989), Ron Rothstein (Miami 1988) and Brendan Malone (Toronto 1995) were all Daly assistants who became head coaches.
The Hurricanes’ hiring of Peters, who interviewed with two other teams as well, might be the most prominent example of Babcock’s coaching tentacles wrapping themselves around the NHL.
The Hurricanes have been scuffling for years, often on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs, having missed the postseason in all but one year since their only Stanley Cup was won in 2006.
They could have gone for an established, regurgitated head coach. They could have hired a recently-retired player. They could have just gone for a name, period.
But new GM Ron Francis, who knows a thing or two about the effect of a coach in the NHL, given that Francis played 23 seasons in the league, went with Peters, who is none of the aforementioned type of candidate.
This tells me that when you have “I worked for Mike Babcock” on your resume, that packs a wallop.
“You have to take the time to go through it and make sure you get the right guy,” Francis told the media at Peters’ introductory press conference, “and that’s what we did.”
But Peters only received a three-year contract from Francis and the Hurricanes, which is a little on the chintzy side. Maybe that’s the rookie coach effect.
No matter. Peters continues the trend that Babcock, perhaps unwittingly, has established: work for me and you’ll have your own team to helm in due time.
There’s more irony dripping from Peters’ hiring by Carolina, and that’s Babcock’s own status in Detroit.
His contract expires at the end of next season, and in two NHL cities—Pittsburgh and Toronto—writers who have noticed Babcock’s status with great interest have pumped for their teams to poach the Red Wings’ coach next spring.
The feeling here is that Babcock will sign an extension with the Red Wings, maybe as soon as within the next 30 days.
Meanwhile, the hunt is on—again—for an assistant coach in Detroit.
If you’re wanting to run your own team someday, it looks like the best path to that is to serve as an assistant to Mike Babcock.
Five coaches since 2008 would concur.