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The 5 Best Players-Turned-Coaches

These guys have truly mastered both sides of the sport.

A Former Flyers power forward and current Joe Rogan look-alike, Rick Tocchet, recently brought home the Jack Adams award as the NHL’s coach of the year on the strength of a 109 point season with the Vancouver Canucks. But, with a life-time record of 248-235-73, it remains to be seen if he’ll be remembered as a great player-turned-coach, or a bust. It could go either way.

That got me thinking about all those players who parlay their ice time into a coaching career. You’d think that it would be a pretty easy transition, but it’s not always pretty.

This week, I’m taking a closer look at the best, and not-so-best players-turned-coaches.

the 5 best players-turned-coaches
These five guys took their on-ice knowledge of hockey and turned it into a winning formula behind the bench.

toe blake

He was a Hart Trophy winner, a scoring champion, and one of the most popular players ever to wear a Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey. When he retired from the NHL as a player he was second in all-time scoring. Not bad, but Toe Blake achieved even greater success as an NHL coach.

Blake rejoined the Montreal Canadiens in 1955 as the bleu, blanc, et rouge’s bench boss, and would go on to win eight Stanley Cup championships in 13 seasons. His 500 career coaching wins puts him 29th all-time among all coaches, former players or not.

 

Mike sullivan

With only 54 goals and 136 points in 709 career games, you wouldn’t think a guy like Mike Sullivan would have much to tell players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin about the game of hockey. I guess he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve, though, because when he arrived behind the bench in Pittsburgh, the Penguins promptly won two Stanley Cups in a row.

Since then, Sullivan has just kept winning. At 445-275-15-100, his career coaching numbers are solid as a rock.

 

randy carlyle

He was one of the last players to go sans helmet, but thankfully Randy Carlyle’s head was still fully intact when he started his head coaching career in 2005. The former Norris Trophy winner brought the Anaheim Ducks to the Western Conference Finals in his first year at the helm, and then secured the Ducks’ first Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history a year later in 2006-2007.

Carlyle is number 32 in all-time wins and games-coached, with a record of 475-334-115.

 

randy carlyle, one of the more successful ducks coaches, lifting the stanley cup with chris pronger in the background.

Randy Carlyle lifts the Stanley Cup after his team defeated the Ottawa Senators in the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals.

craig berube

I still don’t understand how Craig Berube didn’t win coach of the year honours after he took the St. Louis Blues from worst to first in 2019, capturing the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup. It was a comeback story for the ages, and Chief was no small part of the incredible turn-around that year, after taking over for another player-turned-coach, Mike Yeo, who has posted a middling 263-217-62 career coaching record. By contrast, Berube has a 281-190-72 record in almost the exact same amount of games.

 

craig berube, former coach of the st. louis blues after winning the stanley cup

Craig Berube celebrates with the St. Louis Blues after their incredible 2019 Stanley Cup run.

sheldon keefe

Sheldon Keefe’s first five seasons behind the Maple Leafs bench were pretty fantastic. When he took over for the fired Mike Babcock in 2020, the Buds went on a 15-4-1 heater — the best start of any Leafs coach in franchise history. And he’s kept at it, maintaining a whopping .665 points percentage over 349 games.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to replicate his regular season success in the playoffs, and the Leafs canned him after a disappointing first round playoff exit. Still, I put Keefe near the top of the class of players-turned-coaches.

sheldonia

 

Sheldon Keefe celebrates with the Toronto Marlies after their Calder Cup win. He was promoted to coach the Maple Leafs shortly after.

the 5 not-so-best players-turned-coaches

These five guys showed us how it was done on the ice, but it didn’t really translate off the ice.

wayne gretzky

If you saw 143-161 beside Gretzky’s name, you’d be forgiven if you thought it was his goals and assists totals from one of his whacky seasons in the 1980s. Unfortunately that’s his win/loss record as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

We all know what Wayne was capable of behind his opponent’s net. But, behind the bench? Not so much. It pains me to say this, but when it comes to coaching, the Great One was mediocre at best.

 

Head Coach Wayne Gretzky witnesses his Phoenix Coyotes get stomped on by a very young Alex Ovechkin scoring an incredible goal.

brian trottier

He only lasted 54 games behind the New York Rangers bench, but what a disastrous 54 games it was. Islanders fans called Trottier a turncoat for signing on with their New York City rivals, while Rangers fans lambasted him for handcuffing offensive juggernauts Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure by imposing a defense first team system.

He was fired mid season and hasn’t led a coaching staff since.

 

trottier coach

Bryan Trottier after being named head coach of the New York Rangers.

milt schmidt

Boston Bruins legend Milt Schmidt was legendarily average when it came to his coaching career. His squads missed the playoffs in nine of the 13 years that he spent behind the bench, split between Boston and Washington.

Schmidt did redeem himself, though, returning to the Bruins as General Manager and winning the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.

 

milt bruins

Bruins legend Milt Schmidt poses in front of the Boston Bruins locker room.

ed olczyk

Eddie-O made his name as a journeyman centre in the 1980s and ‘90s, playing for six different franchises throughout his 17 NHL seasons. But, he’s not likely to do the rounds again as a coach. In a season and a half as the Pittsburgh Penguins head honcho, Olczyk put up a dismal 31-64-8-10 record.

 

eddie o yelling from the penguins' bench

Eddie-O yelling from the bench while his players look on.

glen hanlon

Coaches often bear the responsibility for a poor team record, even when the blame can be placed on the players. But, the Washington Capitals seemed to really go out of their way to set Glen Hanlon up with a good squad, giving him three seasons with Alexander “I-Can’t-Stop-Scoring” Ovechkin, and adding key pieces like Michael Nylander and Nicklas Backstrom. Still, the Caps struggled, and Glen Hanlon was summarily fired after managing just 78 wins in 239 games.

 

alex ovechkin

do players make better coaches?

Do players make better coaches?

Just because you used to wear a hockey sweater doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to put on the coach’s suit. In fact, oftentimes it seems the better the player is, the less effective they are as a coach, with a few exceptions, of course.

You know, I kind of wish that NHL coaches wore team jerseys like baseball managers do. I think that might be a good way for former players to really connect with their squads. I mean, team jerseys help create a team identity, so why not get the coaches involved?

If you liked this tidbit on players-turned-coaches, then sign up for the 4 Shots with Keener newsletter. Every Friday, I send out my deepest thoughts on hockey culture and hockey jerseys, so subscribe right now so you don’t miss out on future rants and ravings.

See you next week!

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