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.
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.
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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