losing the room

Rudy Pilous was the winningmost coach the Chicago Black Hawks had ever had in 1963, not to mention he’d steered the team to Stanley Cup victory two years earlier. But as the season ended that year, the team not only fell out of first place, but followed up in the playoffs by losing to Detroit. A month later, when the coach’s hometown paper in St. Catharines, Ontario, declared that Pilous was going to be fired within two days, he was calm. “If it is true, then all I can say is that coaches have been fired since the first time a dollar bill got stuck to a puck.”

Had he lost the room? Was that the trouble? It sounds like something that might afflict an absent-minded architect, but no, it’s not. It’s what happens to a hockey coach just before he no longer had the job he had the night before. If you look it up in The Complete Hockey Dictionary (2007) … lose —the battle, — a draw, — the handle … okay, so it’s not in hockey’s dictionary. Should be. To lose the room is to get to a point where players once heeded your counsel and responded to your exhortations (i.e. in the dressing the room), now they’re jaded and hard of hearing, and don’t. As then-New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury said when he’d waxed* Peter Laviolette in 2003: “The line of communication between players and coach snapped.”

“The players were no longer responding to Bruce,” is what Washington g.m. George McPhee said on Monday after he’d replaced Bruce Boudreau with Dale Hunter. There were some who said that it was just Alex Ovechkin that Boudreau had lost (along with too many hockey games) rather than a whole entire team, but never mind, he was gone with nary a “Bruce did a terrific job here, we’re very proud of him, proud of the work he did for us.” Actually, sorry, yes, he did get that — that’s a direct McPhee quote. Ovechkin, for his part, said he was “shocked.”

Monday was bad news too for Paul Maurice in Carolina: he lost the Hurricanes’ room for the second time in his career, for a total of three rooms lost overall, if you count Toronto.

Bobby Hull and Bill Hay were a couple of specific Black Hawks in the 1963 room whom Rudy Pilous was supposed to have lost. When the oracle came true and Pilous was fired that week in May, Hull was quick to deny any such thing. “If a bunch of grown men can’t get up for the game themselves,” he said, “it’s not the coach’s fault.” At home in St. Catharines, Pilous (above) took over temporary control of a tabletop Toronto Maple Leaf team. That’s his wife with him, Margaret, handling Detroit, and their daughter Mary Lou and dog Bijou in the stands. Pilous said he was disappointed but not surprised to have been dismissed.

Billy Reay replaced him. When he’d been let go, previously, by the Leafs in 1958, he felt he’d been undermined by g.m. Punch Imlach. “It may be that Reay didn’t have the horses,” Imlach countered. “But we don’t think he was getting the maximum effort out of the material at hand.” In Chicago, Reay lasted 13-and-a-half years, until 1976, when he gave way to three of his own players who’d been out with long-term injuries: Bill White with assistance from Stan Mikita and Bobby Orr.

Montreal general manager Bob Gainey said that the players had stopped listening to coach Guy Carbonneau in 2009 and, furthermore, “the team was not emotionally engaged,” so what choice did he have but to let him go with 16 games left in the season? Tom Renney (2008) and Andy Murray (2006) were said to have lost roomsful of Rangers and Kings respectively. When Ottawa’s John Paddock lost his job in 2008, captain Daniel Alfredsson said, on the tuning-out question, “I heard a few people ask that, and that’s b.s. if you ask me. It kind of bothers me.” Same thing in 2006, with the Philadelphia Flyers: the players said, no, sorry, you’re wrong, they hadn’t stopped listening to coach Ken Hitchcock. This was, of course, right before he was fired.

Bruce Boudreau was out of work for two days: on Wednesday, the formerly mighty Ducks of Anaheim gave him Randy Carlyle’s old job — right after they told Carlyle good night and good luck. Of course, Carlyle could be in a new job by the time you read this: Scott Arniel has the rumours vulturing overhead in Columbus. As Red Sullivan said after he lost his job in Pittsburgh in 1969: “It didn’t come as a shock. Everywhere I went for the past month it was in the newspapers.”

Tommy Gorman was president of the Montreal Maroons in 1938 when he announced, midway through the season, that coach King Clancy had resigned and he, Gorman, would be taking over behind the bench.

Clancy said: “I didn’t resign. I guess I was fired.” And went to visit his mother in Florida.

I don’t know if it would have given Clancy any satisfaction to know that by the time the season was over, Gorman’s team hadn’t won any more games than he had (six) while losing nineteen to Clancy’s eleven. I don’t think so. Probably not. I think Clancy just must have felt bad that the team finished with their worst record since 1924-25. It was their last season, ever, as it turned out, never played another game, 1938 being the year that the room, and hockey, lost the Maroons forever.

* Another word for Andrew Podnieks’ Hockey Dictionary, from the slang meaning to kill, murder. Also a verb of  choice for decisive victories, thrashings, as in: As recently as 1992, Canada waxed the US 8-0 in the world championship game. (St. Petersburg Times, 18 February, 1992)