TORONTO — John Brophy, a hard-nosed hockey man whose colourful coaching career included a stint at the helm of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has died. He was 83.
The ECHL, where Brophy coached for 13 seasons, said in a statement Monday that the native of Antigonish, N.S., died after a lengthy illness.
Brophy was a hard-as-nails minor-pro player who accumulated 3,900 penalty minutes. He began as a player-coach in the not-for-the-faint-of-heart Eastern Hockey League in 1967, transitioning behind the bench in 1973. His coaching career spanned four decades, mostly in the minors.
“Never, in my way of thinking, did I work a day in my life,” he once said. “Everything was fun.
“I had the greatest job in the world.”
Brophy took over head coaching duties of the Maple Leafs for the 1986-87 season, leading Toronto into the second round of the playoffs. He was fired 33 games into the 1988-89 season after the Leafs stumbled to an 11-20-2 start.
He finished with more than 1,000 pro coaching wins with 65 coming at the helm of the Leafs.
“That was something I’ll never forget,” he once said of his NHL stint.
His time with the Leafs had its ups and downs. Once, after a 1988 loss to Minnesota, he reportedly used the F-Bomb 72 times in an interview, according to David Shoalts’ book “Tales From The Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Brophy’s macho approach was legendary.
During a game in Detroit one night, he accidentally banged his head against the steel supports beneath the Joe Louis Arena stands. He refused to get stitches, taking his place behind the bench with a red blotch of blood in his mop of white hair.
He was believed to be the model for Paul Newman’s Reggie Dunlop character in the movie “Slap Shot.”
Brophy won three ECHL titles with Hampton Roads in 1991, 1992 and 1998, and the ECHL Coach of the Year award is named after him.
He was coach of the year in the WHA in 1979 with the Birmingham Bulls, who had future Hall of Famers Rod Langway and Michel Goulet in their lineup. The league folded and four of its teams were absorbed by the NHL. He has few regrets in hockey but one of them was an offshoot of that merger.
“I would have coached in the all-star game the next season and that would have meant coaching Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull for a game,” he recalled. “That would have been something.”
Brophy was inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame in 2009.
“The entire ECHL is saddened to hear of the passing of John Brophy,” league commissioner Brian McKenna said in a release Monday. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Brophy family.
“There was no greater competitor than John Brophy. He played a significant role in building the ECHL and our annual Coach of the Year award bears his name.”
“Sad to hear on the passing of John Brophy – @Maple Leafs a coach who was demanding, intense, a tad out there & passionate,” former Leafs centre Ed Olczyk posted on Twitter.
While there was little Brophy hadn’t seen in hockey, he said there was one thing that always puzzles him.
“I can’t understand why Toronto, one of the richest teams in the NHL, can’t win the Stanley Cup,” he said in a 2006 interview with The Canadian Press.
He ended his ECHL coaching career with two years behind the bench of the Wheeling Nailers, retiring after the 2002-03 season.
He returned to the pro ranks in 2006 with the Richmond Renegades of the eight-team Southern Professional Hockey League.
Brophy’s hockey philosophy was simple,
“I don’t care what name they put on it, hockey is won by the team that works the hardest,” he once said. “The puck is three inches wide, the net is six feet by four feet — it hasn’t changed. You’ve got to do same thing Maurice Richard did 50 years ago. Go to the net and if the puck is in the corner go get it. There is no easy way of doing it. Anybody who says it’s different is crazy.”