The Saginaw Spirit served a pink slip to head coach Greg Gilbert Tuesday, sending the former OHL coach of the year winner packing after his team has been caught in a mighty collapse.
The Spirits have lost their last eight contests, including a blowout 11-4 loss to the division rival Sarnia Sting on Monday, leading to the firing and Moe Mantha taking his place on an interim basis.
Saginaw holds the final playoff spot in the West Division of the Western Conference, but the eight-game slide has knocked them nine points behind the third place Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
They are eight points up on the Flint Firebirds, and at least they have a better idea of how and when to fire a coach.
Gilbert has nearly coached as long as he’s played the game, starting his coaching career in the AHL with the Worchester Ice Cats the year after hanging up the blades. A 15-year NHL career gave way to a 20-year coaching career in the NHL, AHL and OHL, including parts of three seasons as head coach of the Calgary Flames.
He had a career 134-134-26 record in parts of five seasons at the helm of the Spirit, including a coach of the year trophy in 2011-12. He was a finalist for the award in three of his seasons behind the bench.
Mantha is the Spirit’s northern Ontario scout, and taking over the bench on the interim for the second time. He took over for former Spirit coach Dennis Desrosiers in 2003-04. He takes over with 13 games to go in the regular season, and will guide the team for the rest of the year.
"I'm going to make mistakes ... I hope the players cover for me," Mantha told MLive Tuesday. "They'll make mistakes. I'll cover for them.
"I want them to have fun. I want to get them to feel good about playing the game. You have God-given ability. Use it."
Saginaw GM David Drinkill said that the team will look for a new head coach at the end of the season.
Mantha had a 12-year NHL career of his own as a serviceable defenceman, but his coaching career is more varied than Gilbert’s, and a bit checkered. He has coached at the AHL, ECHL and NAHL levels, and one lone season running the Windsor Spitfires.
That season, 2005-06 as coach and GM of the Spits, went down in a heap, as Mantha was ultimately suspended for 40 games from coaching and barred as GM for the rest of the season after a hazing incident and player fighting during practice came to light early in that season.
The incident, which is a hazing ritual known as a ‘hot box’, featured four Spitfires rookies, who were “forced to strip and crowd into the washroom of the bus”. That allegedly happened on Sept. 9, 2005, with Mantha and Spitfires then-owner and president Steve Riolo on the bus at the time, though both claimed to have no idea of the situation that was unfolding.
Later that month, Steve Downie, then a Flyers first rounder, fought rookie Akim Aliu in practice on Sept. 28. Mantha was not on the ice when the fight occurred, and sources said at the time that the fight and the hazing ritual weren’t related.
Downie and Aliu were both suspended and traded shortly afterward, to Peterborough and Sudbury, respectively, while Mantha was later fired in November. OHL and CHL commissioner David Branch said it was a lack of leadership that lead to his lengthy 40 game suspension – 25 for the hazing, and a further 15 for the fight in practice.
The Spitfires were fined a total of $35,000 for the two incidents.
Mantha was an assistant with the Rochester Americans the next season, but he had trouble getting another coaching job.
He was out of coaching for four years before hopping behind the bench of his Michigan Warriors team in the NAHL in 2010, where he was also co-owner, sticking there until last season when the team was sold and moved from Flint, MI to make room for the new Firebirds.
Mantha was also coach and GM of the expansion French River Rapids this season, who are having a rough opening season in the NOJHL. They sit in last place in the league with a 1-40-1-1 record.