If you’re a hockey fan, you know John Brophy.
Even if you’re too young to remember him, or you’re too new to the sport, or you’re not especially well-versed on your minor league record books, you still know John Brophy. The longtime coach, who passed away on Monday at the age of 83, left a lasting mark on every hockey fan, even those who may not know him by name.
That’s because, according to show business legend, Brophy was the inspiration for the most famous depiction of pro hockey in pop culture history: Paul Newman’s Reggie Dunlop from the classic film “Slap Shot.” That movie, with its over-the-top violence and “old-time hockey” ethos, set the template for how the sport would be perceived for generations. Brophy was where it all began.
But it should go without saying that a well-scripted Hollywood creation didn’t quite measure up to the reality. The real John Brophy wasn’t Reg Dunlop. No, the real guy had a far crazier story than any movie script could ever do justice.
Brophy’s playing career began in the early 1950s and lasted well into the 70s. He never cracked the NHL but he established a reputation as one of the tougher players of his era, brawling his way through the minor leagues for the better part of two decades. Dave “The Hammer” Schultz once called Brophy the toughest man he’d ever fought. That hard-nosed attitude carried over to his coaching career, one that saw him work his way through various levels of pro hockey over the course of more than four decades.
But while Brophy’s coaching career was long and legendary, it was his relatively brief stint in the NHL that made for the sharpest memories. Brophy was named head coach of the Maple Leafs for the 1986-87 season and held the job until midway through the 1988-89 campaign. These were the Harold Ballard years, so it goes without saying that those Maple Leafs teams were terrible. But Brophy led them to within range of respectability, even winning a playoff round in his first season.
And more importantly, he did it his way. We always say “we’ll never see another like him,” whenever someone passes, because that just feels like the right thing to say. But in Brophy’s case, it’s indisputably true. There will never be another John Brophy. Even the idea of something close today seems inconceivable.
For example, most NHL coaches would teach their team the finer points of defensive play in front of the net by running drills or breaking down film. Not Brophy. With the Maple Leafs, he delivered the lesson by gathering his young team in front of the crease and repeatedly pitchforking them to the ice.
I love everything about that clip, from the glasses on a young Scott Oake to the “Annoyed Coach” text that appears under Brophy’s name. It’s the perfect snapshot of an era long gone by, when the utter madness that was the Norris Division was at its peak and you either played Brophy’s way or you went home.
Maple Leafs fans loved him for it. After years of perpetual losing under Ballard, we couldn’t help but embrace a coach who insisted on winning something, even if that something was a bare-knuckled brawl. You did not mess with a John Brophy team. If you tried, and you were lucky, his players would deal with it. If you weren’t lucky, he’d volunteer to handle business on his own, as Jacques Demers and the Red Wings found out during Brophy’s first season as Leafs boss.
That sort of thing made Brophy a cult hero in Toronto, as did his legendary f-bomb rants at the local media. Soon, the Leafs were handing out souvenir versions of his trademark black derby hat, ones that came with “Brophy’s Boys” proudly printed across the front. Those hats were worn with pride during the good times, and occasionally tossed onto the ice during the bad. Such was life in the Brophy era. You weren’t guaranteed to be a contender but you could rest assured that you’d never be boring.
His players knew that firsthand. That’s Leafs rookie Val James getting hacked by Brophy in that first clip up above. He played under Brophy in the minors too, and once painted a picture of what one the coach’s legendary motivational speeches could look like:
That sounds crazy, sure, but it was just the Brophy way. He knew how he wanted the game played, and one way or another, you were going to get the point. If you were playing for him, you would either see the light or you’d sit in the dark. Literally, according to former Leaf Mark Osborne.
Brophy’s stint in Toronto came to an end a week before Christmas 1988, with the Maple Leafs struggling and Ballard’s legendary lack of patience running its course. He’d never make it back to the NHL. But his coaching career was only beginning: he’d go on to an extended run in the ECHL, one that lasted until 2003, and would continue coaching in the minors until 2007. He’d end up with three championships to his name, all with the ECHL’s Hampton Road Admirals, and was credited with over 1,000 wins at the pro level, trailing only Scotty Bowman. The ECHL’s coach of the year trophy bears his name.
Those minor league days brought Brophy more victories than his Maple Leafs stint, but it’s fair to say he never mellowed. Here he is celebrating an ECHL overtime playoff win in 1998, a moment of triumph interrupted by an opposing goaltender who gets a little too lippy. Brophy isn’t having it; even in his mid-60s, he’s ready to throw down.
He never seemed to mellow, even as the game he loved undoubtedly did. As recently as a few years ago, he was bemoaning the way the game had changed. Many fans would agree with him, although it’s become the sort of thing you’re not allowed to say out loud these days. Brophy never worried about that sort of thing, of course. You don’t win 1,000 games by sugarcoating anything, and if you have to slash a few defenceman or fight a few goaltenders along the way, then so be it.
RIP, coach. Fans across the hockey world, from Toronto to Norfolk, to any number of stops in between, are tipping black derbies in your honour. There will never be another John Brophy. There never could be.