NHL Coaches Confidential: What it’s like to get fired

Michel Therrien, Max Pacioretty and Al Montoya talk about Gerard Gallant’s firing from the Panthers and remember his effects on the Habs when he was assistant coach.

It’s not fun getting fired.

Despite the reasons and the rationale, and whether you deserved it or not, it is embarrassing, both for you and your family. It’s tough on friends too. Should they call to give you support? And when is a good time to call?

You may also learn who your friends really are, but trust me: it’s not a fun time.

It’s particularly tough when it’s public, as was the case on Sunday for Gerard Gallant. The pictures of Gallant and assistant Mike Kelly waiting for a cab were painful to see. I can only imagine what it was like to actually be in the picture.

In the salary cap era there have been 48 mid-season coaching changes. The average stint of those coaches behind the bench was 207 games. Just 207 games! That’s about two and-a-half seasons.

So why in the name of God’s green earth would someone want to coach in the NHL? It certainly never appears that any of them are enjoying themselves.

As one coach told me, “It’s like chewing glass sometimes.”

Said another: “You have to be comfortable with being hated.”

Beyond the money (and let’s face it, the money can be good, very good), why would anyone want to go through the rigours, the scrutiny of ownership, management, fans and media, and the embarrassment of being fired?

With that in mind, I talked to 12 current and former NHL bench bosses.

The return calls were immediate and glib. All 12 were willing to talk and open to sharing the best and worst of the job. They also fumed about the pictures of Gallant on the loading dock at PNC Arena in Raleigh.

Some responses to the question of why would anyone want to be an NHL coach?

“It’s the next best thing to playing.”

“You think you can make a difference.”

“The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. Both drive you.”

“Intensity, emotion, fierceness are there like a player’s.”

“You feel part of a team again.”

To a man, they talked about their emotions around hockey. Most admitted coaching was almost as good as playing the game. They also admitted coaching was far more frustrating than playing.

“As a player, I knew that if I gave my all and did my best, I could live with losing,” one former coach told me. “But as a coach, I could never find satisfaction in losing.”

Said another: ”We all love building teams. That’s the fuel, trying to get people to play as one. It’s a great feeling when you are able to do that because you know the winning will be the by-product of being a team.”

Another added: “The desire and ability to lead and direct is ultimately what drives me. With that, winning championships is what keeps the focus for me.”

Time and time again, passion exuded from these men. Their passion for the game, their passion to win, their passion to teach and their passion to lead.

“It challenges you daily,” said one 10-year coach. “The relationships you need to have with your staff and players are very rewarding. You cannot find that type of high unless you are playing, and coaching is the next best thing.”

Paul Maurice, the only coach willing to go on the record, has been fired three times in the NHL.

“There isn’t a better job in the world,” he said. “Instant gratification or failure, a different puzzle every day, the pay is great and you never have to grow up!”

And while Maurice admitted, somewhat tongue in cheek, that it was the only job he was qualified for, there were others who felt under appreciated, given the time it takes to prepare a team.

Said one, “It’s difficult that success is measured on the efforts of others.”

True? Yes. Fair? Perhaps not. But it is part of the job.

The other thing I couldn’t get past is that each man, each pragmatic man, went out of his way to say they never feared failure. They never believed in the hired-to-be-fired philosophy.

As one put it, “You never walk into any job thinking you’re going to get fired. I always have confidence. You want to coach the best every night.”

Or as another pointed out, “When you are in it, I have never been concerned with being fired. I have been too focused in finding a way to get team and individual results.”
And yet a third coach admitted, “You always think you can make a difference.”

Losing takes its toll on these guys. So does being fired. One admitted that it was difficult to get over losses, while another said losing turned him into a “closet person.”

One coach lamented, “I never enjoyed the wins as much as I should have. They certainly weren’t as enjoyable as the losses were painful.”

Another coach currently in the NHL didn’t have that same attitude, adding there was never “a better feeling than waking up the next day after a win.”

Gerard Gallant and the Florida Panthers. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Gerard Gallant and the Florida Panthers. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

On being dismissed, a coach who has had multiple 100-point seasons said, “Getting fired is a terrible feeling, not because of the loss of the job, but because you lose the chance to be part of a team. Part of a coaching team and part of a players team. That part is a very lonely feeling, that you’re no longer part of a group anymore and now you are on your own. We love the part of being part of the bigger picture.”

And another chimed in with, “Why is it always the coach?” He then added he was happy for Gallant.

“It got Turk out of bad spot. He’ll be back soon.”

Another said of Gallant, “It’s hard to see. It’s just disappointing when you’re not appreciated.”

With that pain and torment, what makes them want to come back and do it again? There is definite prestige in being a member of a very private club; one of 30 in the NHL.

One admitted coaching was like a drug. Most interviewed admitted to the highs being high, and the lows being low with the challenge finding an appropriate emotional level in order to lead a group of players who don’t have to be emotionally even-keeled.

“I wanted to coach in the best league in the world, and every time I got fired, I wanted to prove to the team that fired me, they were wrong.”

The author of that quote has his name on the Stanley Cup, as does a current coach who told me being fired is just part of the job.

“Being fired was hard on the ego because you invest so much time in it,” he explained.

Coaches with multiple championships coach more than one team, over long careers, and you just have to understand that.

A third Stanley Cup-winning coach said, “I’ve never regretted a moment. And when you are not doing it, you always find yourself dreaming about doing it.”

The one single, universal answer among them all was that the pressure and scrutiny is tougher on the family, than it is the coach.

“Anyone who says don’t take your job home doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” one coach said. “It was tough on my wife.”

Another coach added, “It’s totally unfair for family. They don’t sign up for the job. It’s unfair for them.”

Such is the life of an NHL head coach. And once you’re in, you want to continue. So after the highs, following the lows, after all the criticism and the firings, there appears to be a consensus.

“It’s challenging, rewarding and exciting. It’s the best job in the world.”

“Not for a second would I trade my time in the NHL.”

And as Maurice added, “All you need is thick skin and a spirit for adventure.”

Enough said.

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