Claude Julien lost his job as coach of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. GM Don Sweeney announced the news at 8 a.m. in a written statement, and then followed that with a press conference a few hours later. Whether or not they agreed with the decision to dump the coach, many Boston fans and commentators found the whole business distasteful if not outright insulting to the city and all it stands for: the New England Patriots, after all, were parading in Boston that very day to celebrate Sunday’s Super Bowl victory.
Sweeney, as you would, looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, in any historical period. He apologized for the poor timing, tried to explain. He wanted to give the new, interim coach — 51-year-old Bruce Cassidy, who’d been aiding Julien as an assistant — hoped to give him a chance to practice with the players before they had to play a game.
“So we have a real opportunity,” Sweeney said, “to sort of step back from the emotional piece of this, and allow our players to get away and vacate it mentally and physically. I thought it was a good opportunity, today and tomorrow, to get their feet on the ground in a practice environment, which we haven’t had playing 50 games in 102 days. The schedule has been challenging in that regard.”
Julien, who’s 56, started in Boston in 2007. That made him (up to the minute of his dismissal) the longest serving of NHL coaches. He departed the Boston bench as one of game’s most respected benchers, having steered the club to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011, the first for the Bruins since 1972. No coach has won more Cups than that in the team’s 93-year-history. Julien also coached the team through more games than anyone else, including the legendary Art Ross, while chalking up the most wins. Graded by winning percentage (regular season + playoffs), his .555 falls back of Tom Johnson (.670) and Cooney Weiland (.602).
Cassidy has two wins, so far, to his name, and a perfect percentage: the Bruins followed up Thursday’s 6-3 victory over San Jose with a 4-3 decision this afternoon versus Vancouver.
While he relishes those, maybe what we’d better do is review the hirings and firings of Cassidy’s 27 forebears on the Bruins’ bench, starting back when the Bruins started, in 1924. Art Ross came first, of course, serving as Boston’s everything in those early years of the club, stocking the roster, forging an identity, and coaching the team through its first 461 games, which yielded one Stanley Cup (1929).
That gets us to the spring of 1934. The Bruins had finished at the bottom of the American Division, out of the playoffs. “I am leaving for Montreal on the 8.45 o’clock train tonight,” Ross told Victor Jones of The Boston Globe a couple days after the team played their final game. “I shall do some scouting during my absence and I may take in part of the Stanley Cup series. And before long I shall engage a coach for the Bruins.”
After ten years at the helm, he was looking to focus his energy. He was 49 and he’d been ill with intestinal trouble. Candidates were said to include Lionel Hitchman, Eddie Powers, Cecil Hart, and Tommy Gorman — maybe Nels Stewart? In the end Ross hired Frank Patrick, also 49, a good friend who’d been working as the NHL’s managing director.
“In my opinion,” Ross said, “he is the best coach in the game today. He should bring Boston a winning team.”
The Bruins did win under Patrick, though they didn’t manage a championship in the two seasons he was in charge. Eric Zweig’s 2015 biography Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins is a good guide to Patrick’s exit in 1936. Ross thought that Patrick was too friendly with players and referees, plus he was drinking too much, and the two men had stopped talking.
Frank’s son Joe Jr. told Eric Whitehead alcohol was a problem, but so was Ross’ reluctance to give his coach autonomy. “Art simply couldn’t or wouldn’t let go of the reins,” Joe Jr. says in Whitehead’s The Patricks (1980), “and my father couldn’t abide that.”
Patrick wasn’t fired, exactly: he just wasn’t, in newspaper parlance from the time, “re-engaged.” Former Bruins’ captain Lionel Hitchman was coaching the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Boston Cubs, and he was once again mentioned as a possible successor. Asked whether star defenceman Eddie Shore might take on coaching the team from the blueline, Ross was non-committal.
“Personally I do not think it would be a wise move,” he said. “In the first place, hockey is too tough a game for a playing manager and in the second, Eddie is much too valuable a player to ruin him by loading so much responsibility on his shoulders. A defenceman these days has all he can do watching opposing forwards without having to keep an eye on his own.”
So Ross returned. He stayed on through to 1939, when he decided for a second time that he’d had enough.
“I can’t go through this any more,” he said this time. “For some time I’ve thought I ought to get off the bench. Lester Patrick of the Rangers and I are about the only men in the NHL who have tried to combine front-office work and bench managing for so many years. He told me after the Bruins-Rangers series that he couldn’t stand it any more, and I know I can’t.”
He ceded the coaching to Cooney Weiland, the newly retired erstwhile captain of the Bruins who’d spent the last year of his NHL career as Ross’ playing assistant. Under Weiland, the Bruins prospered, and in his second year, 1940-41, they won a Stanley Cup — whereupon the coach left the champions to take over the AHL Hershey Bears.
Eric Zweig suggests another feud. In a chapter of his book in which he looks into Ross’ fallings-out with Eddie Shore, Bill Cowley, and Herb Cain (not to mention his blood-grudge with Conn Smythe), he concludes that Ross wouldn’t, couldn’t — didn’t — let his coach coach.
Again Ross was ready to get back to doing it for himself. He stayed on this time through 1945. “I’m through,” he declared that spring. “I’ll never sit on the bench again.” Another of his faithful captains had been acting as a playing assistant, 38-year-old Dit Clapper, who was now ready to retire.
Or maybe be retired. “We want Dit to quit before he is seriously hurt,” Ross said. Clapper himself wasn’t entirely sure he was through as a player. Not long before hewas appointed, he’d been telling Harold Kaese of The Boston Globe that he’d “hate to do nothing but sit on the bench.” And, true enough, he did continue to play for the first couple of years he coached, if mainly on spot duty, replacing injured players in the line-up.
Something else Kaese reported: “The manager said he liked Clapper as a coach because he was willing to take his advice, which other Bruins coaches (Frank Patrick and Cooney Weiland) were not.”
Clapper coached on through the 1948-49 season. At the team’s annual season-ending banquet, owner Weston Adams stood up and quieted the crowd. “I’m sorry that I have to make the saddest announcement of my career,” he said. “Just this noon I learned that Dit will not be with us another year.”
Clapper, who was 42, was headed for home. His wife hadn’t been well, and he had a teenaged son and daughter, along with (as Ross, once, had had, in Montreal) a thriving sporting goods store. “My family and my business in Peterborough, Ontario, now demand all my attention,” he told the room.
Art Ross was overcome with emotion. As for the players, they had a gift to give: a hunting rifle.
“Being a coach is a pretty tough job,” Clapper said, “particularly for an old player. To be a really good coach you have to drive the guys. I just couldn’t do that. All these boys were really my friends.”
I don’t suppose anyone would have batted an eye if Art Ross, now 64, had returned one more time to the Boston bench. He didn’t, though.
“We wanted a man who didn’t know our players at all,” Bruins’ president Weston Adams advised in 1949 when he hired 52-year-old George (Buck) Boucher, famous Frank’s older brother. “Everybody now starts from scratch. They’ve got to make the team. It’s up to Buck to select the men he wants. I don’t think we will have to make apologies for next year’s Bruins.”
Art Ross was on the same page. “Yeah,” he said. “We were looking for a two-fisted guy and got one. He won’t be a yes man to me.”
When the Bruins let him go a year later, Boucher was surprised. He called it a “dirty deal.” Ross let him know as the team travelled to Toronto for the final regular-season game of the season. “It was a blow, and made it a rough ride,” Boucher said. “I had rather expected it but it was tough to take. Art Ross told me I’d done a good job, but the club had other plans for next season. I asked him, ‘If I’ve done such a good job, why am I being fired? I think I deserve another chance.’ And he told me, ‘We have other plans.’”
Art Ross had his side of the story to tell. He was up in Canada, acting as league supervisor for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but made a special trip home to Boston to clarify things for reporters.
“We haven’t lied to you people in 26 years,” he told them at a press conference where he sat alongside team president Weston Adams and a director named Frank Ryan.
Ross reminded everybody what good friends he and Boucher were. They’d discussed finding another coaching job for him. “We could have paid him off for the season — we all know his contract was for one year — several times after some mistakes, but we didn’t.”
Ross addressed charges that upper management had interfered with Boucher through the course of the season. “Regardless of what has been written or said by anyone, it’s not true that any of us interfered at any time with Boucher,” he said. “I called him on the phone once in the season during the course of a game and that was to tell him one of several kids we had brought up for a look was sick and maybe should not play any more.”
“I also suggested — only suggested mind you — perhaps the kids should be changed more often in the third period or we might get licked. We had a three-goal lead at the time. Well, we lost the game. But that’s the only time he was ever told anything by either of us at any time during a game, immediately before or immediately after.”
Boston’s players were sorry to see Boucher go. They presented him with “a powerful short wave radio.”
“This was no sympathy act,” said captain Milt Schmidt. “We planned this some weeks ago as a gift to a swell guy.”
Bun Cook would be the next coach. That was the word. Or Joe Primeau? But no. Instead, Ross lured 38-year-old Lynn Patrick in from the wilds of Victoria, British Columbia. Lester’s son, he’d coached the Rangers for one successful year then quit. He preferred, he’d said then, “to rear my family in some place other than a big city.”
Suburban Boston would work, too. “This is the kind of an opportunity I’ve been hoping and searching for,” Patrick said. “I’m ambitious to get ahead in hockey and don’t want to be a coach all my life.” And so a succession plan was in place: after two years of coaching, Patrick would ascend to replace a retiring Ross as general manager.
That didn’t go quite as planned. Ross kept going through the spring of 1954, announcing his retirement, in the Bruin way, at the team’s annual end-of-year banquet. Under the new plan, Patrick would take on the role of general manager while continuing to coach for one more year. By then, captain Milt Schmidt would be ready to retire and, in the Bruin way, turn himself into the coach.
That plan shifted, too. Schmidt, who was 36, started the 1954-55 season on the ice, a knee injury soon forced him to the sidelines. He was in the line-up and out and then, come December, Patrick suggested he take over the bench for a game in Toronto.
“You’ll be handy so you can help me, won’t you?” Schmidt wondered, according to a Harold Kaese account from The Boston Globe.
“No,” said Patrick, “I’ll sit up back. If I’m near you, I’ll be tempted to say something. Besides, I want to watch the team from up high. I’m not afraid.”
“If you’re not, I’m not,” said Schmidt.
The Leafs won that game 6-0. Schmidt persisted, and things worked out better the following night: he won his first game as a coach when the Bruins beat the Chicago Black Hawks 3-2.
He played a few more games, missed a few. The dangers of the bench were apparent whether he was coaching or playing: out of the line-up for a game against the New York Rangers, he slammed a bench door on his hand while trying to get his lines changed. Dressed against Chicago, an errant puck knocked him unconscious while he was sitting with his linemates.
Just before Christmas, he gave up the playing to concentrate on the coaching. “I just want these guys to give me everything they’ve got,” he said. “I think I can say I always did that.”
“It was his decision, not mine,” his wife, Marie, said. She looked forward, though, to not having to see him stretchered off the ice any more. “I don’t think I worried as much as some wives. I could watch and enjoy a game.”
Seven years Schmidt coached before the time came for him to take a job as Patrick’s assistant general manager.
In came Phil Watson. I don’t know how much you know about the speedy former New York Ranger winger who was also a beloved Ranger coach in the 1950s. That as a player he’d sometimes burst into tears at critical moments on the ice? That, skilled as he was, other teams and their fans reviled him as much as anyone (possibly) has ever been reviled in all the league’s history? That the English language often came out of his mouth mangled as a mouthguard? That as Ranger coach he accused his own players of being “fat and complacent”?
He was 47 when he took the Bruin job, which he did, he said, “without a thought behind my mind.”
“I’m not here to win a popularity contest,” Watson continued. “But I never lost any either. I know I once said Boston fans were the worst in the world. And I thought they were when I was with the other team. But I know they are good fans the way they support this Boston club.”
Scott Young later wrote about how he adjusted his approach to dealing with players:
When he was hired in Boston in June, 1961, he announced a change in policy. If a player needed to be ticked off about his play no longer would he do it in public. The words ‘You stink’ would be banished from his lexicon.
Watson’s Bruins finished last in the NHL in 1961-62. In the fall, the team won its opening game before skidding through a 13-game winless run. The fans were booing, and worse. A 3-1 loss to Detroit at the Garden was the last straw UPI:
A teddy bear bearing the sign “Watson” was suspended from the balcony during the game and was interpreted as a suggestion that the Bruins buy up the remaining year and a half of Watson’s three-year contract.
The AP saw it differently:
A crowd of 10,041 hooted through much of the game and several of them hanged Coach Phil Watson in effigy — a monkey doll suspended by a rope from the first balcony with the label “Watson” on it.
That was on a Sunday. Monday morning, Lynn Patrick fired Watson, he summoned his assistant. “Phil has been relieved as coach,” he said. “Milt, one of us has to coach the team. Will you do it?”
“Okay,” Schmidt said.
He was 44 now. He didn’t have an immediate solution up his sleeve. “I haven’t had time to think about anything yet,” he told reporters. “I feel as bad about the change as Phil does.” He did want to ease the players’ minds. “They’re tense and pressing and that makes for mistakes,” he said. “You can’t play hockey unless you’re relaxed and in the right frame of mind.”
He said he was a better coach than he’d been the first go ’round. If he had to do it again he wouldn’t play and coach. “That was bad,” he said. “One minute you’re playing with them. The next minute you’re on the other side.”
Schmidt’s second stint as coach lasted four years. Those were bad, bottom-of-the-NHL-barrel years, but he thought he might stick around for one more season, if only because Bobby Orr was on his way into the league. He decided not to, in the end, opting instead (as GM) to blood young Harry Sinden. Just 33, he’d never played in the NHL, but the Bruins had been grooming him as a coach and in 1966 they deemed him ready. They had a few more rough seasons before they started to rise. In 1970, of course, Sinden’s team won a Stanley Cup.
Whereupon, in the Cooney Weiland way, he quit the team. In Sinden’s case, he had a very exciting opportunity waiting for him, as an executive with Stirling Homex Inc. of Avon, New York.
Maybe it was hard for people to understand, but the job he’d be doing presented “exciting new challenges in mass residential construction,” Sinden said, and what really could anyone say to that because (as I’ve written before) if there’s one thing hockey doesn’t offer and never has, it’s mass residential excitement.
Had Sinden been blackmailed, maybe knocked on the head? The truth did, eventually, get out: Sinden told Sports Illustrated that Schmidt had turned down his request for a raise of $8,000.
“I’m flabbergasted,” is what Schmidt said before that.
“Losing Harry is like losing a member of your family,” Weston Adams Jr. said. “We left the door open for him. Any time he wants to come back into hockey we will have a job for him.”
Hall-of-Fame former Habs and Bruins defenceman Tom Johnson, 42, took over. He steered the team to a Stanley Cup in 1972 — only to be shown the door a year later.
“It’s a shame,” Bobby Orr said when that happened. “The guy was fired because we weren’t playing the way we should. Maybe they should have fired some of the players. But that’s the way it goes. If everything is going well, the players get the credit. When things start going bad the coach is to blame. Maybe we just didn’t have the guts to do enough for him.”
“When you do something like this you naturally hope it can turn things around,” said Harry Sinden. “But you just don’t know how it will work out.” Schmidt had moved up to became the team’s executive director with (in the Lynn Patrick way) the man he’d hired to coach taking his place.
“My only concern,” Sinden said, “is that any of the players might think the firing of the coach lets them off the hook.”
Was Johnson too calm? He wasn’t sure. “I don’t know how easy-going I was. Maybe I was this year. But I never heard anything about it the two previous years when we had a lot of success.”
It was February, then, just like now. A Monday morning. After he’d talked to Johnson, Sinden called in the coach of the Boston Braves, the Bruins’ AHL farm club. Bep Guidolin, 47, had played for the Bruins, starting way back in 1942-43, when Art Ross was still coaching. Guidolin was 16 then, the youngest player ever to have skated in the NHL.
“What’s happening?” Guidolin said when he got to Sinden’s office.
“You’re the new coach of the Bruins.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Whadda I do now?”
“Whadda you mean whadda you do now? You go out and run the practice. It’s your team.”
“It’s our team,” Guidolin said.
“Yes, you’re right,” Sinden told him, “it’s our team.”
Guidolin ran the practice. Before he did, he made sure to find Tom Johnson, to wish him the best. “It’s not the end of the world,” he told him. “The same thing could happen to me.”