“Why be a coach, anyway? The money is not great; usually less than a team’s greenest player. The future is absolutely certain: you’ll be fired. The wise, the safe, or the lucky are the ones who take the first chance to get higher into management. Be a general manager, and fire somebody else: be a Harry Sinden, Sam Pollock, Jim Gregory, Tommy Ivan.”
That was the great Scott Young writing in a Globe and Mail column headlined “A Coach’s Fate is to Get the Chop” back in 1977, not long after the Toronto Maple Leafs sacked Red Kelly. Today, when Alain Vigneault lost his job with the underwhelming Philadelphia Flyers, he was the second NHL coach to go in just 24 hours, joining Travis Green, formerly of the Vancouver Canucks. Young’s theory of sanctuary in management isn’t looking so good today: Canucks GM Jim Benning was also let go yesterday, not a week after his (former) Montreal counterpart Marc Bergevin was shown the Bell Centre door.
And the money? What’s the deal on coaching dollars 44 years on from Red Kelly’s day? I don’t have good sources on his exact Leaf salary, but the Globe reported in ’77 that his successor on the Toronto bench, Roger Neilson, signed a one-year deal with Harold Ballard that the Toronto owner said was “about the same salary Red had,” but with more opportunities for bonuses.
That, the Globe asserted, put Neilson “in the $40,000 bracket, or roughly half the average salary of players in the National Hockey League.”
Today? Under the CBA, the minimum an NHLer can be paid annually is $750,000. When it comes to an average, as Bryan Murphy at NBC Sports writes here, there’s no such definitive number. “However, given that each team has $81.5 million in cap space for this season, with 23 players allowed on the active roster, the average of that comes out to around $3.5 million per player.”
According to CapFriendly, Vigneault was in the third year of a five-year deal that’s been paying him $5-million annually. That’s less than the Flyers’ best-paid player, Claude Giroux, who makes $8.275 a year, and six other of the team’s more valuable members. Travis Green’s 2021-22 salary isn’t listed, but last year he was making $1-million. Looking at this year’s Canucks’ roster, that’s less than 14 of his (erstwhile) players.
Coaches do have another option, of course, a middle way between getting fired and taking a chance on the safety of management: as Fred Shero did in the summer of 1978, they can walk away.
In his day, the man they called the Fog had been seven years doing the job that Alain Vigneault just stopped doing on the Flyers’ job. Shero’s record included bringing home a pair of Stanley Cup championships, but at 52 he just didn’t think he had what it took any longer. “The reason for this resignation,” he said, “is simply that I feel my effectiveness to motivate the players, as well as to inspire them to the degree that would result in a Stanley Cup victory, has been exhausted.”
He went on to coach the Rangers in New York, but in November of 1980 he reached the end of the road there, too, resigning a second time, with Craig Patrick stepping in to succeed him.
That was a grim month all around for NHL coaches: the Edmonton Oilers also canned Bryan Watson that November, making way for Glen Sather’s return, while Detroit replaced Ted Lindsay with Wayne Maxner.