Peters Latest Product of Babcock’s Growing Coaching Tree

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.

“I’ll take the culture of winning in Detroit with me,” Peters told the Detroit Free Press before being introduced in Raleigh.

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.

Game 29: Red Wings-Philadelphia Enotes

Let’s hope that the Red Wings aren’t battling for their lives in the season’s final week, just to make the playoffs. Because if they are, tonight’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers at JLA is the kind of match that will cause the Detroiters to kick themselves.

A 3-1 lead midway through the second period looked promising, but then it all fell apart, and the Flyers scored five unanswered goals to win, 6-3.

In the third period, the Flyers pumped in three goals in about five minutes, two of them on the power play.

Jimmy Howard again played the role of bewildered net minder as the Red Wings’ four-game winning streak was snapped in perplexing and stunning fashion.

Tomas Tatar scored twice, living up to the praise damned upon him by NBCSN’s Keith Jones in the first intermission.

Johan Franzen scored the other Red Wings goal, blasting a slap shot from the top of the face-off circle past Steve Mason.

The Flyers scored an empty net goal with 59 seconds to play.

Howard let in five goals on 33 shots, again failing to make any significant saves of note.

Let’s hope this one doesn’t come back to haunt.

The Red Wings are 14-8-7.


BOTTOM LINE: The Flyers have been playing better as of late, but the Red Wings inexplicably let the momentum totally shift after going ahead 3-1.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: The Flyers weren’t great, but for five minutes in the third period they left the Red Wings shell shocked. These stinkers are going to happen over the course of 82 games, but the timing is discouraging, coming right when you thought the Red Wings had gotten their act together. We’ll see if this is just a speed bump.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Wayne Simmonds

What: Philadelphia at Detroit
When: Wednesday, December 4, 8:00 p.m. (TV: NBCSN)

Wayne Simmonds

Wayne Simmonds would have fit in very nicely with the Philadelphia Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” teams of the mid-to-late-1970s.

Simmonds is a Flyer of today—6’2″, 210 pounds of toughness mixed in with some scoring punch, along with some fist punches.

Simmonds is 25 years old but has already played in almost 400 NHL games. He debuted with the LA Kings in 2008 as a 20-year-old.

In those nearly 400 games, which equate to about five full NHL seasons, Simmonds has averaged 17 goals and 102 penalty minutes for every 80 games played.

Those are numbers that would have been perfect complements to scorers like MacLeish, Clarke, Leach, et al, back in the day.

Simmonds is like the Paul Holmgren or Mel Bridgman of today’s Flyers, to invoke the names of two franchise players of the past whose combination of scoring pop and grit helped make those Flyers teams the bane of the NHL.

Simmonds busted out, offensively, in 2011-12 when he pumped in 28 goals in his first season as a Flyer, having been traded by the Kings to Philly in June 2011. The deal netted the Kings Mike Richards.

Simmonds’ nickname is the Wayne Train. He was born in Scarborough, Ontario. Despite growing up close to Toronto, Simmonds, who is of Black Nova Scotia descent, has said he was a fan of the Red Wings as a youngster.

Last month, with the Flyers freefalling, Simmonds’ name popped up in trade rumors, supposedly with the Edmonton Oilers. He read them, but didn’t let the trade talk bother him. Instead, he focused on his current team, not one that he might be traded to.

“We’ve got a good squad in here,” Simmonds was quoted on “ The onus is on us to play. We’ve already had a coaching change. It’s time that the players start owning up to what’s going on here. We’ve got to be responsible.”

Simmonds wears no. 17 for the Flyers.

Game 29: Red Wings-Philadelphia

For old-timers like me, there was nothing quite like Flyers-Red Wings games at the old Olympia Stadium in the 1970s.

In Philadelphia, that was a different story. The Flyers didn’t lose to the Red Wings in the Spectrum between 1971 and 1988.

But in Detroit, the Red Wings seemed to always play the Flyers tough—literally.

The Wings didn’t always win, but the games were usually close. But it was beyond the final score where the Red Wings and the “Broad Street Bullies” made for a dynamic pair, when the game was played at the corner of Grand River and McGraw on the city’s near west side.

Quite frankly, the games were filled with fights and the center line wasn’t the only stuff on the ice that was red, if you get my drift.

The Red Wings, on paper, weren’t supposed to be much of a match for the Flyers in the 1970s. The Flyers emerged as the best of the six expansion teams that entered the league in 1967, a solid organization that drafted well. The front office and coaching were keys to the Flyers’ winning Stanley Cups in 1974 and ’75, and getting to the Finals again in 1976.

The Red Wings, meanwhile, began the decade in “Darkness with Harkness” and ended it with the derisive nickname, The Dead Things.

So on paper, Detroit-Philly should have been a constant mismatch.

In Philadelphia, it usually was. But there must have been something in the water at Olympia, because when the Flyers came to town, you had to buckle up your seat belt.

Guys like Dennis Polonich, Dan Maloney, Dennis Hextall and Reed Larson—to name a few—would typically give the likes of Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz, Jack McIlhargey and Moose Dupont all they could handle.

Red Wings-Flyers

At Olympia against the Flyers, the Red Wings won some games on the scoreboard, and won more than their share of fights on the ice.

Those games were exciting matches, despite the fact that if you couldn’t attend in person, your only outlet was radio. Home games weren’t broadcast on TV in those days.

But that’s OK, because the pulsating voice of Bruce Martyn was enough. Martyn called hockey on WJR and it only took a few seconds after tuning in on the radio for you to get caught up in the drama he was describing two stories below him.

“Larson DRIVES a shot…he SCOOOORES!!!” Martyn would scream, and his voice would crack on “scores.”

When the Flyers came to town, Martyn had to turn boxing announcer half the time.

Those were some grand times, when the Flyers came to Detroit in the 1970s. It was literally a night when you could, as they say, toss the won/lost records out the window.