Wednesday, June 20, 2018

When coaches quit

The NHL off-season got a jolt Monday with a surprise out of Washington: Head coach Barry Trotz will be heading elsewhere after handing in his resignation.

That’s surprising on several fronts, not least of which is that we didn’t know Trotz could resign in the first place – we’d been led to believe that his contract was about to expire. As it turns out, his old deal included an automatic extension that kicked in when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. That new deal wasn’t to Trotz’s liking, and attempts to negotiate a new deal were unsuccessful, so Trotz walked away.

That’s a relatively rare occurrence in a league where coaches are far more likely to be relieved of their duties, often with a footprint on their behind. But it’s been a bit of a theme this off-season, as Trotz becomes the third NHL head coach to voluntarily leave his job. In April, Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock announced his retirement. And a week later, Bill Peters resigned as coach of the Hurricanes.

Peters landed on his feet, taking the Calgary job within days. It seems safe to assume that Trotz will also find new work quickly. If so, he’ll become the first coach in 24 years to leave a team he just won the Stanley Cup and take a job somewhere else.

Making the choice to quit an NHL job is rare. But it’s not completely unheard of. So today, let’s look back on 10 other head coaches who walked away from a job, and how that worked out for them. We’ll start with that last Cup winner to do it, since it involves one of the great off-season soap operas in modern NHL history.

Mike Keenan, 1994

Imagine you’d just led an Original Six team to its first championship in 54 years. You’re the toast of the town. What’s your next move?

If you said “Find a loophole in your contract, declare yourself a free agent and announce you’ve just signed a five-year contract with a different team,” then you and Mike Keenan would probably get along great.

The whole mess started in July 1994, just days after Keenan had led the Rangers to a Game 7 victory over the Canucks to finally put an end the “1940” chants once and for all. Rather than rest on his laurels, Keenan got to work checking the fine print on his contract. When he realized the Rangers had been a day late on a bonus payment, he publicly declared that his contract was null and void. Two days later, he’d signed a five-year deal to become the coach and GM in St. Louis.

Needless to say, the Rangers weren’t thrilled. GM Neil Smith acknowledged the late payment, but called it a “clerical error” and the team went to court to try to prevent Keenan’s jump. (The court filing referred to Keenan as a “faithless employee,” and you have to admit they kind of had a point.) Gary Bettman became involved, in what was viewed as the first major crisis of his relatively young stint as commissioner.

Eventually, the Blues and Rangers agreed to a trade that sent Petr Nedved to New York in exchange for Esa Tikkanen, Doug Lidster and the rights to Keenan. Bettman approved the deal, but fined just about everyone (including the Red Wings, who’d also been negotiating with Keenan). He also suspended Keenan for 60 days.

Keenan got to work in St. Louis, assembling one of the most interesting teams in modern history. He also traded for Wayne Gretzky. Hey, speaking of which…

Wayne Gretzky, 2009

It would be hard to call Gretzky’s resignation as Coyotes coach a major surprise, since there had been subtle signs that he was unhappy in Phoenix. Like, for example, the fact the Coyotes were weeks into training camp and Gretzky hadn’t shown up yet.

The backstory here isn’t all that complicated. The Coyotes had filed for bankruptcy earlier in the year, and an ownership battle was being waged in court between the league and Jim Balsillie. With Gretzky making a reported league-high $8.5 million as the team’s coach (among other roles), the numbers didn’t add up – especially given that he’d missed the playoffs in all four years behind the bench. When it became apparent that neither Balsillie or the league intended to retain his services, Gretzky stayed home and eventually announced his decision to walk away.

The Coyotes announced the hiring of Dave Tippett and moved on. Gretzky ended up in an extended battle with the league over money he was owed that dragged on for years. He never coached again, and at this point everyone has politely agreed to forget all this ever happened.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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