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The Life

January 8, 2003
Protective Cup?
ESPN The Magazine

The recent firing of Avalanche coach Bob Hartley, just 18 months removed from a Stanley Cup, is the latest proof of an NHL fact of life: Despite being surrounded by ice, coaches are always on the hot seat.

Bob Hartley
The Avs didn't think Hartley had done much for them lately.
The reason is money. The economics of today's NHL mean that teams need to make the playoffs in order to make money-or, in some cases, just to break even. (Even the Red Wings need to make the playoffs before they see any significant black ink.)

Making the playoffs kept the Sabres alive for many years. The Oilers and Senators? It's postseason or die. Calgary is not messing around either: Greg Gilbert got canned Dec. 3.

Home playoff games, where most of the revenue is profit, are especially precious. Each one puts roughly $3M on a team's bottom line. Ticket prices get jacked up, souvenirs fly over the counter and you can't pour the beer fast enough. I didn't know it at the time, but when I coached the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993, our 11 home playoff games-and the millions they generated-propped up the struggling financial empire of owner Bruce McNall for another 18 months.

Six months after Scotty Bowman stunned the hockey world by announcing his retirement during the on-ice celebration of the Red Wings' Stanley Cup win, we asked SportsNation to vote for the best coach in the NHL. The winner? The back-bench wizard of the surprising Minnesota Wild, Jacques Lemaire, with 27.6% of the vote. For complete poll results, go to (keyword: nhl coaches). We also asked Barry Melrose for his top five:

Jacques Lemaire, Wild: Considering the low budget he has in Minnesota, he's done an amazing job. Night after night, he's the best coach in the league.
Marc Crawford, Canucks: He has a talented team, which is sometimes harder to coach than, say, the young team Lemaire has.
Ken Hitchcock, Flyers: I wanted to put Bob Hartley here. But Hitchcock has won a Stanley Cup too, and ultimately that is how coaches are judged. His teams are always well-prepared and Philly is doing well right now.
Jacques Martin, Senators: May be the best team right now -- and they don't know when the next paycheck is coming. Martin works as hard today as he did at the start.
Robbie Ftorek, Bruins: Ftorek has had to overcome the two things beyond his control that can kill a coach: injuries and the loss of key players to free agency.

No wonder teams act quickly-if not always rationally-when they think they might miss out on a playoff cash stream that could mean the difference between life and death for a franchise.

As in other sports, it's easier to fire the coach than to overhaul the roster. Look at the Rangers, though, to see if the easy way is the best way. Since 1995, they've had five coaches, but they haven't made the playoffs in five years. The Rangers keep signing players to huge contracts, but they still can't win. So they keep looking for that special coach who can make their guys play.

And the players know the score, make no mistake. If they think the coach is about to be fired, the pressure is off them. Look at Colorado. The Avs made the playoffs last year and had high expectations for this season. But Hartley was fired because his team was off the playoff pace. Hartley didn't suddenly forget how to coach. Maybe his team just stopped listening to him. Tony Granato gets the job, and voilą, the team picks it up: Peter Forsberg and Alex Tanguay are on fire, and Patrick Roy is playing better in goal. Same team, new voice. As tough or unfair as the move is on the old coach, it can sometimes help spark a team.

The moral? In most cases, a coach's best hedge against an in-season firing is to get off to a good start. But don't try telling that to Hartley. The Avs were "only" 10-8-9-4 the day he got the ax.

This article appears in the January 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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