NHL displays thorough lack of imagination in its head-coaching search

In 2011, critically acclaimed television writer Andy Greenwald wrote a piece for Grantland titled The HBO Recycling Program. The basic premise of the piece is that HBO, despite boasting a marquee of programs that sent most network executives into a fit of envy, would use the same handful of actors for its flagship shows.

Following that same mentality, and despite a bevy of untapped coaching talent, NHL teams have constantly exercised a thorough lack of imagination in its searches, a pattern that has been on full display over the past 24 hours with two case studies readily presented.

The news initially broke in reverse order on Sunday evening, as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Vancouver Canucks had appointed Bruce Boudreau as their next head coach before Travis Green was even formally dismissed, although one easily drew the conclusion about Green’s fate through context.

Bruce Boudreau is back in the NHL as the Canucks' new head coach. (Getty)
Bruce Boudreau is back in the NHL as the Canucks' new head coach. (Getty)

Boudreau was given a two-year deal, reportedly worth $4.5 million, which is pretty commonplace for coaches. But what's more alarming is that the Canucks readily had their heir apparent in place without conducting a thorough search. It’s eminently disqualifying of other candidates from the same, drab rotational and reveals that the NHL’s 'Old Boys Club' remains undefeated.

Boudreau boasts a career .635 winning percentage and is indeed qualified for the job. Many pundits in support of Boudreau made a point that the NHL is more fun with the bombastic head coach in it, perhaps best known for his fiery speeches on the HBO’s Road to the Winter Classic series, characterized by a hilarious mix of malapropisms and f-bombs. Some view Boudreau’s candour as a breath of fresh air in comparison to the canned monotony that governs media availability. Boudreau isn’t some monster — he’s generally well-liked around league circles, but the fact he can waltz into his fourth NHL head-coaching job at age 67 without a second thought about expanding the process makes representation for women, BIPOC and younger, innovative talent a near impossibility.

Vancouver also fired maligned general manager Jim Benning, who was detested by the fan base during the latter two years of his tenure.

Instead of conducting a thorough search for the best candidate, the Canucks are reportedly interested in hiring former Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, whose list of recent disgraces should be automatically disqualifying. In short order, Bergevin oversaw the 2021 NHL Draft where his team selected Logan Mailloux, despite the defenceman being charged in Sweden for distributing a sexual photo without consent. Mailloux asked teams not to select him, and still Bergevin marched forward.

Bergevin was also the director of player personnel for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 when Kyle Beach was sexually abused by then-video coach Brad Aldrich. When the story broke this year, Bergevin said he wasn’t consulted about the abuse, a statement which has been met with widespread doubt.

The simple fact is that Bergevin has often acted as a charlatan, undeserving of another chance in hockey — even if you want to keep the criticisms to on-ice performance — and the idea that he’d be the best candidate for the job is simply untenable if you show even an inkling of creativity.

It’s not just the Canucks who’ve shown an absence of care while looking to fill their vacancies. Philadelphia fired head coach Alain Vigneault after the team stumbled to its eighth consecutive loss, and replaced him instantly with Mike Yeo, an assistant with a .514 winning percentage as a head coach during stints with the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues.

This case is less egregious than the Canucks', as it merely represents a stopgap for the Flyers. But as reports circulated Monday that Rick Tocchet, the former Arizona Coyotes head coach, was the leading candidate in contention for the Flyers’ job, you have to wonder how many times round and round and round the tired cycle goes.

Prior to the start of the 2021-22 season, Jason Payne of the East Coast Hockey League’s Cincinnati Cyclones was the only Black head coach in North American men’s professional hockey. Craig Berube of the St. Louis Blues is the only head coach from First Nations descent. There isn’t a single woman who is a head coach of a North American men’s professional team at the moment, either. And the talent is certainly out there, but they don’t get the benefit of second, or third, or fourth looks at a dream job.

Part of this falls on the media too: if you keep parroting what’s merely familiar to you, it perpetuates the cycle of the same 60 names.

The NFL implemented the Rooney Rule in 2003, a policy that requires teams to interview at least one visible minority for head-coaching and senior-management positions before making their hire. Critics of the rule have pointed out that it’s been easily circumvented and of course, the NFL’s ownership groups are the furthest thing from a socially progressive entity. But the spirit of the policy is something that should be readily embedded in hockey.

Representation matters. It absolutely matters. And yet it feels like saying “representation matters” and “hockey culture is broken” has been co-opted by white power brokers, who’ll repeat the phrasing, but will do little to effect more proportionate racial and gender representation itself.

Representation matters, but it can only be effective if there’s policy to create change, otherwise the status quo of widespread disinterest in younger candidates, or racialized candidates, will continue to rear its ugly head.

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 15: Four-time Olympic gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser waves to the crowd during the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony ahead of the NHL regular season game between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 15, 2019, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON, Canada. (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Four-time Olympic gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser is more than qualified for an NHL senior-management job. (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Hayley Wickenheiser, the senior director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs, is overqualified for an NHL general manager role. Paul Jerrad, who is currently working as an assistant for the Omaha Mavericks in the NCAA, is more than qualified for an NHL head coaching job, too, with various successful assistant stops. Greg Mauldin, the current assistant head coach of the U.S. National Team Development Team Program is a candidate who could change the game and should be on coaching radars everywhere.

There is talent everywhere, from circles that hockey’s power brokers — both from the executive and media branches — fail to consider daily.

From here onward, I can only advocate for a call to action for a policy that at least works in the spirit of the Rooney Rule. It’s disheartening to see this waltz play out the same way for the umpteenth time. You can, for example, make calls to action for Hockey Canada to consider women and BIPOC for head-coaching positions, as they are a public governing body. It’s trickier to apply to private enterprises like NHL teams, especially if they straight up don’t care about conducting a thorough search, wholly representative of what hockey has to offer.

The Old Boys Club stacked another victory this weekend. Who’s going to change that?

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