The debate over the most effective style of coaching in the National Hockey League could go a long way toward being resolved this season.
Do hockey players need a disciplinarian who wastes little time in getting familiar with his team?
Or do they prosper more with an understanding coach, one who has played hockey as a pro and can identify with what the players go through during the rigors of a long season?
Intended or not, the Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks could do much to cast light on the dilemma, depending on their performances this season and how they reflect on the methods of their coaches.
Paul Holmgren, a former player with the Flyers and Minnesota North Stars, has succeeded Mike Keenan in Philadelphia, bringing with him a pat on the back instead of the slap in the face so common to Keenan.
Keenan, fired because Philadelphia General Manager Bob Clarke felt the Flyers had simply stopped responding to his methods, has moved to Chicago, where he will attempt to revive a franchise that finished third in the weak Norris Division last season with 69 points.
While the Holmgren-Keenan debate will attract most of the attention, they are only two of the six new NHL coaches this season.
Pat Burns, a former police detective who has American Hockey League coaching experience, has replaced Jean Perron in Montreal. Brian Sutter, another former player, has taken over in St. Louis, which had hoped to hire Keenan before the Black Hawks decided to fire Bob Murdoch and go in a new direction.
Gene Ubriaco, who coached Baltimore in the AHL, was new General Manager Tony Esposito’s choice to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first playoff spot in many years. And Pierre Page has replaced Herb Brooks in Minnesota, where the North Stars finished with a pitiful 19-48-13 record last season, the worst in the NHL.
In Philadelphia, the Flyers welcomed the decision to replace Keenan, who led the team to two Stanley Cup finals in four seasons and had an overall record of 190-102-28. His disciplinary style, which was effective for a few years, simply became too burdensome.
“You can only whip some guys so much before you can’t revive them any longer,” forward Rick Tocchet said. “It got to the point where guys couldn’t respond to the way he was dealing with them.”
That means, of course, the onus is on the players to respond to Holmgren’s less-demanding style.
“I can relate to the players due to my experience as a player,” Holmgren said. “I will be firm by fair. I think my approach will enable them to develop as players.”
Of course, Keenan believes the Flyers developed just nicely under his guidance.
“I have to believe every Flyer is a better player because he played for Mike Keenan,” Keenan said.
Keenan took the Flyers to a Patrick Division championship and an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in his first season, tough accomplishments to match in Chicago.
But Blackhawk General Manager Bob Pulford said Keenan may be just the person to spark a team of underachievers.
“He’s a winner,” he said. “He’s a proven coach.He wins. We feel that, more than aything else, is what he’s going to bring to us. It’s an innate thing but we feel that with Mike Keenan, our team will improve. We think our teams have been underachievers for the last few years. His teams have been achievers.”
In Montreal, which won the Adams Division but was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round, Burns is not worried about making the transition from Sherbrooke to the NHL’s most-storied franchise.
“I don’t think there is any fear that I have,” he said. “If there was, I wouldn’t have accepted the job.”
Sutter may be a former player, but it sounds like he will approach his job in the Keenan manner.
“We’re a young team that needs discipline,” he said. “I don’t expect it to be easy. Before it’s easy, it’s going to be a tough row to hoe.”
Ubriaco had only a mediocre season with Baltimore of the AHL and he’ll be hard-pressed to make the Penguins play up to the pace set by superstar Mario Lemieux.
Page comes to Minnesota after four seasons as an assistant coach with the Calgary Flames. He also served as head coach of the Dalhousie University Tigers in the late 1970s.