aide-mémoire: a short history of nhl assistant coaches

Mike Nykoluk was an up-and-coming 21-year-old forward when he played for the Winnipeg Warriors of the old WHL in 1955-56, a team loaded with former NHLers, including goaltender Ed Chadwick, defenceman Bill Juzda, and forwards Bill Mosienko and Paul Masnick. Also manning the Warrior blueline that year was a former New York Ranger, 30-year-old Fred Shero, who was just about to launch a coaching career that would take him to Philadelphia in the early 1970s.

It was there, of course, that Shero would contriveto guide the Flyers to successive Stanley Cup championships, in 1974 and ’75. Nykoluk was there for those, too, you might remember: following his brief NHL career (32 games with the ’56-57 Toronto Maple Leafs) and a longer cruise (16 seasons) in the AHL, Shero had hired him as an assistant coach in June of 1972.

Mike Nykoluk, I’m sorry to say, died last week at the age of 87. In 1978, he followed Shero when he went to New York to coach the Rangers. Mostly he was referred to (again) as an assistant, though Shero preferred to call him a co-coach. Eventually, between 1981 and 1984, Nykoluk got his chance to be the boss, seeing service through parts of four seasons as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Something he was not: the NHL’s first assistant coach.

That’s a claim that has been often repeated over the years, with confidence. Eric Duhatschek, for instance, in a 2017 Globe and Mail feature about the evolution of the role of coaches in the NHL declared that Shero had “hired the first official full-time assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk, in 1972.” History doesn’t agree.

Reminders of Nykoluk’s (supposed) trailblazering resurfaced last week, too, so maybe time for some clarifying. For all his achievements through the years, Nykoluk wasn’t even close to being the NHL’s original assistant coach.

Jeff Marek, Sportsnet’s esteemed hockey broadcaster, keeps a careful eye on hockey’s history, and he was attentive in seeing the record corrected …

… up to a point.

Because while Al McNeil and Doug Harvey did indeed precede Nykoluk as NHL assistants, others went before. Many others. Onward into the obscurity.

The first? That distinction would seem to belong to Dick Carroll, in Toronto, all the way back in the league’s inaugural season, 1917-18. There’s some cloudiness to this, so bear with me, if you will.

To start with, some straightening out of terminology is in order: in those early decades of pro hockey, teams tended to have one man who both coached and took care of player personnel, and he was usually called (in the baseball way) the manager. This was true, for example, in the mid-1920s, with icons like Art Ross in Boston, Lester Patrick of the New York Rangers, and Jack Adams in Detroit.

Toronto’s manager for the 1917-18 season was Charlie Querrie, who happened to be the man who ran Toronto’s Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, home to the new team. Querrie was appointed in early December of ’17, two weeks before the NHL’s opening night. Dick Carroll’s appointment as Querrie’s aide was announced at the same time.

So there it is: Dick Carroll was the NHL’s first assistant coach.

Ottawa’s Journal reporting the news (and misspelling the name) in December of 1917.

If that’s clear enough, here’s some cloud to obscure things: as the modern-day Maple Leafs recount it, Carroll was head coach in 1917, steering the team through its first 40 games and onward through to 1919. Querrie’s 1917 service is recognized in the team’s list of GMs; as a coach, he’s recognized for two later tours he served in the ’20s, by which time the team had turned into the St. Patricks.

Got that?

Wrong, I’d say, in my nitpicking way, with a kicker to the effect that, by failing to acknowledge the way things used to be, the Leafs have (not for the first time) muddled their own history.

Further fogging things is the fact through the course of the 1917-18 season, Toronto’s bench was anything but settled.

Charlie Querrie had taken the job in Toronto on the understanding that he’d be free to operate without the interference of Eddy Livingstone, the NHA owner, Toronto hockey eminence, persona non grata — it was to ostracize and spite Livingstone that the NHL was formed in the first place in November of 1917. Livingstone’s ongoing meddling seems to have prompted Querrie’s resignation at the end of December, after Toronto had played just three NHL games, leaving Dick Carroll in charge: the assistant coach was now the coach.

Unless Querrie didn’t quit.

Newspapers that had reported that Querrie was finished were soon correcting the record to say that he was still on the job, or would be again as soon as the team’s owners at the Montreal Arena Company guaranteed him that Livingstone would really, truly, be kept away from the team. Querrie also seems to have sought to download some of the coaching he was doing to Carroll.

This all seems to have taken some negotiating, leaving Carroll in charge. Querrie did return to the fold, but as of January of 1918, Carroll does seem to have assumed day-to-day — and game-to-game — control of the team, with Querrie moving more into the realm of — well, yes, what we would today recognize as GMing.

That April, when Toronto won the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era, accounts of the final series only confirm this division of labours: Carroll was coach, Querrie was manager. Glory to them both, along with a footnote or two: Querrie’s NHL’s coaching record should include those first three games that he coached, the very ones that constitute Carroll’s entire tenure as the league’s original assistant coach.

Hawk’s Nest: Helge Bostrum (left) and Clem Loughlin in May of 1934. The caption on this photo, as it appeared in the Chicago Tribune: ‘Loughlin’s appointment as the new manager of the Chicago Blackhawks was confirmed yesterday morning. Helge Bostrum, former Hawk defense star, will be his assistant.”

Next in the NHL’s long line of assistant coaches? A non-definitive listing might look to Boston.

Sprague Cleghorn was 37 in 1927, playing out the last year of his long, distinguished, and very brutal career with the Boston Bruins. He was team captain again that year, as he had been previously, and he had a new role, too, as manager Art Ross’s (playing) assistant. Cleghorn was running practices and stood in as interim coach for several games in early 1928 when Ross was home with a stomach ailment. So he seems to have been second among assistant coaches.

Born in Copenhagen, Emil Iverson went from head coach of the University of Minnesota hockey team in the 1920s to being hired as the NHL’s first full-time physical director when Major Frederic McLaughlin brought him on with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1930. Iverson was appointed head coach after that (the league’s first European-born pilot), only to be replaced in 1933 by Tommy Gorman … whom Iverson continued to serve as assistant.

Gorman departed in 1934, having won the Stanley Cup. When Clem Loughlin was named his successor, the newly retired Chicago defenceman Helge Bostrum signed on as his assistant.

More and more teams in the ’30s were hiring deputies, a review of newspaper archives shows, some of them who were still playing, some others fresh off hanging up their active careers. To wit:

Bill Cook aided Lester Patrick with the New York Rangers in 1936-37, with Frank Boucher stepping in to take up the same role the following season, ’37-38.

Frank Boucher’s Ranger role was reported in September of 1937.

Larry Aurie served as a playing assistant to Jack Adams with the Detroit Red Wings in 1938-39.

Paul Thompson was Chicago coach Bill Stewart’s playing assistant that same season.

When the Montreal Canadiens shifted coaches in the latter stages of that season, swapping in club secretary Jules Dugal to replace Cecil Hart, Babe Siebert was named captain and playing assistant.

In Chicago in 1938, Carl Voss was hired to assist Paul Thompson, now the coach of the Black Hawks. And in 1941, Helge Bostrum resurfaced as an assistant to Thompson.

The Bruins had a run of distinguished assistants through the ’40s and ‘50s, with Dit Clapper, Jack Crawford, and Milt Schmidt all appointed to the role at one point or another.

In 1958-59, Bert Olmstead served as a playing assistant to Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach. King Clancy, too, served Imlach and the Leafs the same role in Toronto in the ’60s, as well as working as assistant GM.

This is, again, no official register, but it does make clear that at least 17 men served as assistant coaches in the NHL before Mike Nykoluk started in Philadelphia in 1972.

I don’t know exactly how the Nykoluk glitch get into regular rotation, but it seems it started at the source. Discussing the hiring that June, 50 years ago, Flyers GM Keith Allen is quoted in several newspaper reports as confirming Nykoluk as a pioneer, with Fred Shero weighing in on the breakthrough, too. Why not add an assistant? “Football and baseball have assistant coaches,” Shero opined, “and those sports are not as physical or mentally demanding as hockey.”

The error was enshrined early on in the local literature. The Flyers’ 1975-76 yearbook, for instance, casually mentions it.

In Full Spectrum, a comprehensive history of the team from 1996, Jay Greenberg scales it back a bit: Nykoluk is identified there “one of the NHL’s first assistant coaches.”

Keith Allen is quoted as crediting Flyer owner Ed Snider for the hire. “Eddie came from football, where they had assistant coaches, and thought Freddie could use some help,” Allen recalled. “Mike had never been fast enough to play in the NHL,  but he was a smart player and I had a lot of respect for him.”

Helpmeet: A team-issued photo of Al McNeil, who appointed an assistant to Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Ruel in 1970 and, a few months later, succeeded him.

 

stretcher case

Built to endure, Dit Clapper was the first NHLer to play 20 seasons, and he was every bit a Boston Bruin for all of them. Born in Newmarket, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1907, he distinguished himself early on a right winger, joining Cooney Weiland and Dutch Gainor on the Dynamite Line before switching back to work on defence in later years. More firsts: Clapper was the original NHLer to be selected an All-Star at both forward and defence, and when he was elevated in 1947 to the Hockey Hall, he was the first for whom the Hall waived its standard waiting period. He was a Bruin captain and served as both a playing assistant coach and coach for Boston in the 1940s. He was in on three Bruin Stanley Cups as a player, in 1929, 1939, and 1941. The team retired his number 5 in 1947.

The photos here date to later on in 1941, when Clapper was 34. That’s (a bandaged) Bruin teammate with him, 29-year-old Bill Cowley, on the right in both cases. The woman, whose name has gone missing over the years, was part of a promotional campaign that swept into Boston that November and enlisted these Bruins stars to the cause of raising funds for medical supplies to be sent to the United Kingdom to aid in the war effort against Germany and its allies. In another month, of course, the United States would be joining the fight.

 

(Images: © Richard Merrill, CC BY-NC-ND)

do you want to look fancy, or do you want to get the job done?

Fancy This: Terry Harper aims a fist at Bruins’ centre Forbes Kennedy at Montreal’s Forum this week in 1964. The Bruins prevailed on the night 6-0. Looking on is Bruins’ #4, defenceman Bob McCord. (Image: La Presse)

“Do you want to look fancy,” Terry Harper was saying in 1978, “or do you want to get the job done?” Harper, who’s turning 82 today, was talking generally about hockey at the time, but he might have been professing his own personal creed, the one that saw him through a 19-year career as highly effective and hard-to-daunt NHL defenceman. Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, on a Saturday of this date in 1940, Harper won five Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens between 1962 and 1972. He went on to play for — and captain — the Los Angeles Kings and the Detroit Red Wings in the ’70s. He skated for the St. Louis Blues, too. He was an assistant coach for the Colorado Rockies in 1981 when, as a 41-year-old, injuries saw him drafted into the line-up for a 15-game run. “The game is 95 per cent mental,” Harper opined back in ’78. “A lot of people say it’s less than that, that it takes a lot of ability. It doesn’t. It’s 95 per cent or more here,” he said, tapping a finger to his head.

defence force

Tall Order: Born in Béarn, Quebec, on a Saturday of this date in 1941, Hall-of-Fame defenceman Jacques Laperrière is 80 today, so here’s a salute to him. He played a dozen seasons on the Montreal blueline, aiding and abetting the Canadiens in six Stanley Cup championships. As a rookie in 1964, he won the Calder Trophy, pipping two of his teammates, John Ferguson and Terry Harper at the post. He was fourth in the voting that year for the Norris Trophy, as the league’s best defenceman, behind Chicago’s Pierre Pilote. He got his Norris two seasons later, outsripping Pilote and a Chicago teammate of his, Pat Stapleton, in the balloting. After his playing days ended, Laperrière was an assistant coach in Montreal, and partook of two more Cup chmapionships, in 1986 and ’93. He later worked for the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, and New Jersey Devils. (Image: Fonds Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

john muckler, 1934—2021

 

A sad advisory from the Edmonton Oilers, confirming the news that former coach John Muckler died on Monday night at the age of 86. A native of Midland, Ontario, Muckler cut his head-coaching teeth in 1968-69 with the Minnesota North Stars. He joined the Oilers as an assistant on Glen Sather’s bench in 1981 and played his part in five Stanley Cup championships in Edmonton, the last one, in 1990, as head coach. Above, he’s pictured in 1984-85; the team group below finds him between Father and goaltender Andy Moog in 1983. He subsequently spent four years coaching and managing the Buffalo Sabres and another three seasons on the New York Rangers’ bench. Muckler was GM of the Ottawa Senators from 2001 through to the summer of 2007.

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it was fergie who was to blame

“He was hardness itself,” Hanford Woods wrote of John Ferguson the elder, in a 1975 short story about a famous fearful fight, “The Drubbing of Nesterenko.” Born in Vancouver in 1938 on a Friday of this date, Ferguson was a left winger who was, yes, renowned through his eight-year career with Montreal’s Canadiens for his rugged, fist-first, penalty-incurring brand of play. He had some goals in him, too, scoring 20 one season and 29 in another. In 1963-64, he finished runner-up to teammate Jacques Laperriere in voting for the Calder Trophy, recognizing the NHL’s best rookie. Before he retired, Ferguson helped Montreal win five Stanley Cups; afterwards, he served stints as coach and GM of the New York Rangers, as well as GM of the Winnipeg Jets. He died in 2007 at the age of 68.

It was 1972, of course, that Ferguson was blooded as a coach, answering Harry Sinden’s call to aid in steering Team Canada through its epic eight-game showdown with the Soviet national team that played out 48 years ago this month. In the cover story for the early-August edition of The Canadian Magazine pictured above, Ferguson was front and centred as Sinden explained how he’d gone about building his team for the series that everybody was talking about “as if it’s as important as the Second Coming.”

“I got this job June 7,” Sinden wrote, “and the very next day I hired John Ferguson as my assistant. … The main reason I chose him is that my personal record against the Canadiens, when he was playing for them and I was coach of the Bruins, was not good. The Canadiens kept beating us all the time. When I analyzed it, I figured it was Fergie who was blame as much as anyone. If anyone’s a born leader on the ice, it’s Fergie.”

Hab Habit: Ferguson spent all eight of his NHL years in Montreal livery. (Image: Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002343750)

jack mcilhargey, 1952—2020

Sad news today from the alumni association of the Vancouver Canucks: former defenceman Jack McIlhargey died yesterday, July 19, of cancer. He was 68. Edmonton-born, McIlhargey was a Cougar in Victoria and a Bomber in Flin Flon before he got started in the NHL, in 1974, with the Philadelphia. Along with Larry Goodenough, McIlhargey and his moustache arrived in Vancouver in 1977 by way of a trade that returned Bob Dailey to Philadelphia. McIlhargey worked the Canucks’ blueline for parts of four seasons before ending his career with the Hartford Whalers. After retiring in 1982, he worked as both an assistant coach and assistant GM for the Canucks; he also, over the years, steered several of Vancouver’s minor-league affiliates, in Milwaukee, Hamilton, and Syracuse. He had stints, too, back in Philadelphia, with the Flyers, as both an assistant coach and as a scout. Jack McIlhargey was elevated to British Columbia’s Hall of hockey Fame in 2011.

helge bostrom: chicago’s past master in the art of interference

Winnipeg-born this very week in 1894, Helge Bostrom didn’t arrive in the NHL until late in his hockey career: a bulky defenceman, he’d just turned 36 when he debuted for the Chicago Black Hawks in January of 1930. By then, his resume showed a year-long war-time stint with the Fort Garry Horse, the paperwork for which divulges that his eyes were blue, his complexion fair, and his feet flat (“no disability,” the examining doctor deemed). The teams Bostrom played after he got back to Canada in 1919 were some talented ones. Bostrom was a teammate of Duke Keats’ and Bullet Joe Simpson’s on a 1923 Edmonton Eskimos team that fell to the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals. Later, with Frank Patrick’s Vancouver Maroons, he lined up alongside Frank Boucher and Hugh Lehman. A stout defender, Bostrom also gained a name for himself in those old western leagues for his penalty-shot prowess. 

He played parts of four seasons in the NHL, serving as Chicago’s captain for the last of those, 1932-33. Adjectivally, contemporary newspapers have down as rugged and husky, a proponent of bang-up hockey and a past master in the art of interference — though he was also heralded as good-natured and a right smart fellow. Paging back, you’ll also see him referred to as the most stitched player in hockey history. As per Chicago’s Tribune, he accumulated 243 during his career on the ice, 140 of which were administered by Dr. Henry Clauss, house doctor at Madison Square Garden, in November of 1931 after Bostrom’s ankle was deeply cut in an accidental encounter with a skate worn by Rangers’ defenceman Earl Seibert. The 142 isn’t a number I can vouch for, personally: I’ve also seen it given as 142, 144, and 187. Anyway, the wound was bad. “He was lucky he didn’t lose his leg,” Black Hawks’ teammate Johnny Gottselig said.

Bostrom played on with a succession of minor-league teams after he left the NHL in 1933, Oklahoma City Warriors, Philadelphia Arrows, Kansas City Greyhounds. He went on to coach the AHA Greyhounds, too, and eventually made it back to Chicago and the NHL: in 1934, he signed on as an assistant to Black Hawks coach Clem Loughlin. In the early 1940s, he served in the same capacity, taking charge of the Chicago defence under head coach Paul Thompson. Helge Bostrom was 83 when he died in January of 1977.