In today’s NHL the idea of a player-coach is completely far-fetched. Both sides of the bench have become highly specialized and have demanding such responsibilities that you rarely find the player who can “do it all” on the ice and likewise for coaches in the locker room. In fact, we’re at a point where each team might have a head coach, two or more assistant coaches, a goaltending coach, and a support staff (such as video coaches and scouts). Likewise, players are expected to not only train physically, but also practice, and learn systems for all sorts of situations. Between the enormous increase in coaching responsibilities as well as the commitment fo rplay on the ice in today’s highly structured game, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a player-coach in the NHL again.
So let us take time to reminisce about some of the more noteworthy NHL player-coaches in history.
Newsy Lalonde, 1917-22
Despite playing much of his early career before the NHL was formed in 1917, Newsy Lalonde was one of the league’s first star players. He scored 125 goals in only 99 career games and would have been both the Art Ross Trophy and Rocket Richard Trophy winner in 1918-19 if those awards had existed. Lalonde was an early captain of the Montreal Canadiens and was on their first Stanley Cup winning team in 1916 (in the National Hockey Association). He coached the Habs for 88 games from 1917-22, which included an NHL Championship win in 1918 (but not a Stanley Cup as the Cup was not necessarily tied to the league until 1926). After this he played for the Western Canadian Hockey League before returning to the NHL to coach for the New York Americans in 1926-27. In November 1926 he substituted into the game for an injured player, marking his final game as a professional hockey player in any league. He would return to coaching in 1929 with the Ottawa Senators before returning to coach the Canadiens from 1932 to 1935. Lalonde finished with a 144-167-28 record as an NHL coach. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player in 1950.
Lester Patrick, 1928
Known as one of the league’s most influential coaches of all time (he introduced the blue line, forward pass, and the playoff system to the NHL to list just a few of his laurels), Lester Patrick only played a single game in the NHL and he did so as a player-coach. The 44-year old, who was in his first year as New York Rangers head coach, substituted himself into a Stanley Cup Final game after starting netminder Lorne Chabot suffered an eye injury from a high shot. Back then, teams did not have backup goaltenders. The opposing coach, Eddie Gerard of the Montreal Maroons, refused to allow either of the two professional goalies in the crowd (Alec Connell, star goalie for the Ottawa Senators, and minor-leaguer Hugh McCormick) substitute for the Rangers, leading Patrick to get in front of the net himself. Odie Cleghorn, who was coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time, was in the stands and allowed to substitute for Patrick on the bench. Cleghorn told the Rangers to play a hard checking game the rest of the night, which kept the Maroons from getting shots close on net. Patrick made 18 saves on 19 shots, leading to the Rangers’ victory. The Rangers were able to get a league-approved replacement goalie for the remaining three games of the series, which they won to bring home the club’s first Stanley Cup championship. Patrick went on to win six Stanley Cups as a player, coach, and manager. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1947.
Cy Denneny, 1928-29
Player-coaches in the early NHL were somewhat common because coaching was not as complex as it is today and because teams had tighter budgets than they do now. Perhaps the most prolific player-coach of the early days was Hall of Famer Cy Denneny. Denneny was signed by the Boston Bruins in 1928 as a player, coach, and assistant manager. He led the team to their first Stanley Cup championship, his fifth and final one of his career, in 1929. Denneny was one of the most prolific goal scorers of the early NHL and at the time of his retirement in 1929 he held the career records in goals and points in the NHL. Denneny would round out his NHL career with two years as a referee from 1929-31 and a year as the coach and manager of the Ottawa Senators in 1932-33. After a last place finish with the Senators, Denneny moved on from hockey.
Frank Boucher, 1943-44
Frank Boucher became a player-coach for the New York Rangers in 1943-44 under very odd circumstances. At the time, Boucher had already been retired for six years. He is one of the Rangers’ greatest players of all-time as he had won two Stanley Cups as a player (1928, 1933) and another as a coach for the team (1940). However by 1943 the Rangers were the worst team of the league. The Rangers were actually so bad that Boucher came out of retirement to become a player-coach. At the age of 42, Boucher played 15 games and scored 14 points. The Rangers still finished with a 6-39-5 record, one of the worst in history by a non-expansion team. This was mostly due to their 6.20 GAA, which is the worst the league has ever seen. Boucher would continue coaching the basement dwelling Rangers through 1949, when he was let go after a 6-11-6 start on that season. He would return again in 1953-54, but after a 14-20-6 record his coaching days would come end. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.
Other early player coaches include: Eddie Gerard (1917-18, Ottawa Senators), Ken Randall (1923-24, Hamilton Tigers), Odie Cleghorn (1925-1928, Pittsburgh Pirates), Duke Keats (1926-27, Detroit Cougars), Art Duncan (1926-27, Detroit Cougars), Dunc Munro (1929-31, Montreal Maroons), Lionel Conacher (1929-30, New York Americans), Sylvio Mantha (1935-36, Montreal Canadiens), and Dit Clapper (1945-47, Boston Bruins).
Sid Abel, 1952-54
Hall of Famer Sid Abel is best known for his time in Detroit, both as a player (for 12 years) and as a coach (for another 12 years), but sandwiched between those spans was a two year stint as player-coach for the Chicago Black Hawks. Abel was part of the famed “Production Line” in Detroit with Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe. In 1950 the three of them would take the 1-2-3 spots as the league’s leading scorers, the only time three teammates have done such in NHL history. After winning his third Stanley Cup in 1952, Detroit traded Abel to Chicago for cash. Abel coached the full 1952-53 and 1953-54 seasons for the Black Hawks while also skating in 42 out of 140 possible games. Abel was released by Chicago after only amassing 9 points and a 39-79-22 record. He would be picked up by the Red Wings in 1958 and spend the next 811 games on the bench for Detroit before finishing his coaching career with 13 games split between the St. Louis Blues and Kansas City Scouts.
Doug Harvey, 1961-62
With seven Norris Trophies, Doug Harvey is one of the most accomplished defensemen in the league’s history. He was a pivotal part of the 1950’s Canadiens team that appeared in ten consecutive Stanley Cup Finals (1951-1960), winning one in 1953 and five consecutive Cups from 1956-60. It was after missing the SCF in 1961 that Harvey was traded to the Rangers for tough guy Lou Fontinato. In Harvey’s first season with the Rangers, he served as player-coach, skating in 69 games and coaching for 70 of them. He led the team to a 26-32-12 record while winning his final Norris and finishing second in Hart voting behind Jacques Plante. Harvey did not like the pressure created by the position and so he stepped down as coach before the 1962-63 season. This was the last time the NHL saw a player-coach fill both responsibilities for a full season. He would play another 154 games in the NHL, but he never coached again. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.
Charlie Burns, 1969-70
Charlie Burns was the most recent player-coach the NHL has seen. On December 28th, 1969, he was named the head coach after Wren Blair was fired for leading the Minnesota North Stars to a 48-65-34 record in their first 2.5 years in team history. Burns coached the team for 44 games while also skating in 50 that year. Because I don’t have game logs to know when he skated, the best I can do is determine that he must have been a player-coach for a minimum of 18 games that season. Burns, a defensive-minded center, was known for his PK and checking abilities, would end up with 16 points as a player and a 10-22-12 record as a coach that year.
The 1969-70 season was not Burns’s first time as a player-coach. He served that role twice with the San Francisco Seals of the Western Hockey League (which is actually completely unrelated to the WHL we know today) in 1965-66 and again in 1966-67. His time as player-coach for the North Stars would neither end his playing or coaching career. He played with the North Stars through 1972-73. After spending a year in the AHL, Burns returned to the North Stars as a coach for a single year.
Honorable Mention: Arturs Irbe, 2014
While serving as the goalie coach for the Buffalo Sabres, Irbe was signed to a tryout contract on November 18th, 2014, to serve as an emergency backup goalie for the Sabres after Jhonas Enroth was injured in the first period while playing the San Jose Sharks. Irbe, who hadn’t played in an NHL game since April 4, 2004, suited up but did not play that night. Irbe had had a 13-year career that spanned 568 games. While his career 0.899 Sv% is terrible by today’s standards, he had a balance of seasons where his Sv% was above and below the league average. He was at times a rel workhorse, having lead the league with 70+ games started on three separate occasions. Had he taken to the ice in 2014, he would have become the first player-coach in 44 years and possibly the record holder for longest gap between seasons played (although that last part is speculation on my part).
Other Honorable Mentions: Todd McLellan and Joel Quennevile
McLellan only played 5 career NHL games and found himself overseas in the top Dutch hockey league by the age of 25. It was there with the team SIJ Utrecht that he served as a player-coach in 1992-93, sparking his interest for behind the bench. The next year he was a head coach for the North Battleford North Stars of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Over the next two decades McLellan worked his way up through the WHL and the AHL to become an assistant coach in Detroit, where he won the Stanley Cup in 2008. That next year marked the start of his first NHL head coaching assignment with the San Jose Sharks. McLellan is now the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers.
Quenneville served as an assistant coach to Marc Crawford in 1991 while he was still a player for the St. John’s Maple Leafs in the AHL. Quenneville had enjoyed an 803-game NHL career, but St. John’s general manager Cliff Fletcher was looking to transition him into a coaching role. Quenneville quickly worked his way up the ladder, joining the Quebec Nordiques in 1994-95 as an assistant coach and becoming a head coach of the St. Louis Blues in 1996-97. Now in his twentieth year as an NHL head coach, he has won more Stanley Cups (2010, 2013, and 2015 with Chicago) than he has had his teams miss the playoffs (just once: the 2006-07 Colorado Avalanche).