NHL coaches, GMs share stories of their first jobs in hockey

John Tortorella spoke about how he's adapted his coaching style with the Blue Jackets and what he thinks could happen in the NHL season moving forward.

With the NHL season still on hold, this feels like a natural time for many in the game to do a little reflecting.

Hockey Central has hosted several coaches and general managers over the course of the league’s current suspension, and Sportsnet’s Brian Burke has been asking many of them the same simple question: What was your first job in the game?

The question has made for some fun and interesting insights into how careers in front offices and behind benches begin, from important connections made during shortened playing careers to simply answering a newspaper ad. Here’s a collection of some of those stories:

Before becoming a longtime veteran bench boss in the NHL, Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella earned $6,000 coaching in the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Hockey League:

“My first pro coaching job was in Roanoke, Virginia [in 1986]. It was back in the old Atlantic Coast Hockey League … and [Rick Dudley] was coaching in Winston-Salem and he had a goon squad, we’d play them 18 times a year, I think there were four teams in the league at that time. You talk about some old-time hockey back in the day there,” Tortorella said during his appearance on Hockey Central earlier this month.

There, he earned $6,000 a year.

“That was a lot of money for me back then,” he said. “We were just starting our family.”

Tortorella and Dudley would later collaborate in the AHL with the Newhaven Knighthawks, farm team of the Los Angeles Kings — “My first whack at really getting close to the National Hockey League,” he said.

“I think people want to jump right into it and get to the top of it right away,” Tortorella said of his climb up the coaching ladder at various levels. “It was invaluable to me to run a team — I wore about 10 different hats down there [in Virginia]. You wake up in the morning, you’re not even sure if the league is going to be there that day because you’re not sure if it’s gonna survive. I learned so much in grinding through that and dealing with some of the things you had to deal with to try to keep the league afloat. So, it was a great training ground for me, I speak for myself personally, to go through all of that. I learned quite a bit back in those days.”

John Tortorella on what was an eye-opening season for him
March 18 2020

It took Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy just six years to become an NHL head coach… and 14 years to earn himself a second chance:

“Mine was in Jacksonville, Fla., the East Coast League,” Bruce Cassidy, who started coaching the ECHL’s Jacksonville Lizard Kings in 1996-97, told Hockey Central. “I was playing at the end of my career, had a knee injury so I wasn’t in the lineup much, but I was part of Chicago’s minor league team. Bob Murray was running it then. They were firing their coach in the East Coast League and they basically came to me and said, ‘Do you want to get involved in coaching?’ because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do anyway as my days were numbered. I think I was 31 at the time. So, that’s where I ended up interviewing, got the job, and off I went. I was by myself, there was no assistant coaches back then. We had a couple older guys that helped you out, but it was a great learning experience in that regard. I did everything.”

Cassidy earned $39,000 that first year.

“Big money … Well, I was ahead of Torts, I guess,” he said with a laugh.

“I went from there to Indianapolis in the old IHL. It was a partial affiliate of the Blackhawks — that was my connection. As a pro, that was the only organization I played for — but always in the minors. A lot of times I was in charge of the young guys coming up — you go from a prospect to a depth player to a career minor-leaguer, that was kind of the path I had, and I was there to mentor the younger guys … that was my in, so I was fortunate to get promoted to Indy [in 1998] and look after Chicago’s prospects. Then they went under [in 1999], so I went back to the East Coast League, in Trenton, then got hired in Grand Rapids which was the American League at the time — Ottawa was the top affiliate — and then to [the Washington Capitals]. So, I got a chance early on [in 2002]. Looking back, I was real fortunate. Didn’t realize how lucky I was, probably.”

Cassidy was replaced mid-season one year later, “and then, back to square one again. Started over, and I eventually ended up in Boston,” he said.

He wouldn’t be an NHL head coach again until 2017 when he was named interim bench boss of the Bruins.

“So, it is a long road for some. Others are a little more fortunate,” he said. “And others never make it, so I’m certainly grateful.”

Bruce Cassidy on a career built on perseverance
March 23 2020

Ken Holland was this close to becoming a vacuum salesman before getting a life-changing phone call:

“My path was, my last two years I played in Adirondack [with the] Red Wings and came back home, my agent was looking for a job for me. I was a 29-year-old goaltender, a 5-foot-8 goalie, played about three NHL games — so there wasn’t a hot market for a 5-foot-8, 29-year-old goaltender — and was having a hard time finding a job.”

The end of his playing days led Holland and his young family to return home to Vernon, B.C.

“Funny little story: So, now it’s 1985, nine years pro, I’m looking for work. It’s May. My agent can’t find me a job. We’ve come home — my wife, Cindy, and I are living in the basement, we have kids born in ’81, ’83, ’84, and we’re looking for a place to live in Vernon, B.C. I got a job at the liquor store, Cindy’s got a job at the hospital as a nurse, we know we’re in great shape until Labour Day weekend when they’re gonna cut our jobs back. The phone’s ringing, my agent’s calling, and not good news, not good news, not good news.”

Then, one day, his mother showed him an ad from the newspaper.

“The Vernon News had come up with an ad that day, the Elextrolux vacuum cleaner was looking for a salesman in the Okanagan area, and she called the 800 number and the job was open,” Holland said, adding that she’d promised to be his first sale — followed by a few other nearby relatives.

“Two days later, the phone rings, and it was Neil Smith on the phone saying that I was in consideration for a Western Canada scout for the Detroit Red Wings and the next day Neil Smith and Jimmy [Devellano] were going to call me,” Holland said. “It’s funny how life goes. I got to stay in hockey. I’ve been in hockey my entire life, paid professionally since I was 20 years old. So, very fortunate.”

Holland had come on the recommendation of longtime minor league coach Bill Dineen — Holland and Dineen had actually lived in the same apartment complex as during Holland’s AHL playing days and would even carpool with him sometimes.

“I built a relationship up with Bill, and Bill recommended to Jim Devellano to hire me as a scout and I became a scout in 1985, was a scout for four years [in] Western Canada,” said Holland. “In 1989, the chief scout of the Red Wings, Neil Smith, left the Red Wings to be the general manager of the New York Rangers and Jim Devellano elevated me to be the chief scout.

“I did the chief scout job for five more years and Jim Devellano moved me to Detroit in 1994. Brian Murray and Doug MacLean had been let go, and I became the assistant general manager,” he said. “Worked on an every day basis with Scotty Bowman in the office, with Jim Devellano. That was my Harvard. That was my school … that was my training to become an NHL general manager in 1997.”

How close did Ken Holland come to being a vacuum salesman?
March 24 2020

Dallas Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness started as a player-coach, and never looked back:

“We go back a long time for that one. Back in 1982, I believe it was, I was with the Winnipeg Jets organization and they had sent me down to [now-defunct affiliate] Sherbrooke in the American Hockey League. I think I was 26 years old at the time,” Bowness told Hockey Central. “They had hired Ron Racette, who was a very successful coach in the Quebec junior league, and he was going to coach our team. But unfortunately for Ron, he had a brain tumour removed in July and was unable, physically, to start the season. So, John Ferguson Sr., at the time, was the general manager and he asked me to become player-coach for a couple of months. So I said, ‘Sure, I’ll try that.’ I had no idea what I was getting into, but I knew my playing career wasn’t going to last much longer. I knew I wanted to stay in the game, I knew I wanted to get into coaching, so it was a good opportunity to put my foot in the door and see if I enjoyed it.”

What began as a few months in the position turned into a full season as Racette was still too unwell to take over. (Racette would return to coaching the following year.)

“It was quite the experience,” Bowness said of his season as player-coach. “As little as I know now, I knew a lot less then.”

The following season, with a healthy Racette back behind the bench in Sherbrooke, Bowness served as player-assistant coach until he got a call from newly-hired Winnipeg Jets head coach Barry Long.

“Barry called me and asked if I wanted to retire — I think I was 27 or 28 — and come up to Winnipeg as an assistant coach,” he said. “A few of the players were older than I was. But, we got through it. And we’re still at it today, so I’ve been very, very fortunate. A lot of moves along the way, but a lot of great times, met a lot of great people, and never looked back once and regretted the decision to retire when I did and get into the coaching ranks.”

A few minutes with quintessential NHL coach Rick Bowness
March 24 2020

Los Angeles Kings head coach Todd McLellan started his coaching career close to home in Saskatchewan, but his career was inspired across the globe while playing a season in The Netherlands:

“My time [in The Netherlands] was exciting, it rekindled my passion for playing,” McLellan told Hockey Central. “We won a championship, I met a tremendous man named Doug McKay, who happened to spend some time in the NHL as a coach, and he got me into the coaching bug.”

When McLellan returned to Canada that summer, he did so with the intention of jetting off to Europe for another season back on the ice but had a change of heart.

“I realized it was a path that probably wasn’t taking me anywhere, so I was thinking about a number of different paths to go on. My father was in the RCMP in Canada, and I thought about that for a while, and passed on that. And lo and behold one day, I open up a newspaper, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, and there was an ad in the paper for a coaching position in the Saskatchewan Junior League, the North Battleford North Stars. And I know that I had that itch because of my European time.”

He answered the ad, sent his resume, interviewed, and about two weeks later was offered the job.

“Twenty-four years old, gonna coach players that are 18, 19, 20 at that time, and had really no idea what I was doing,” McLellan reflected. “I remember getting the job, I came back home and looked at my fiance at that time (wife now), and I said, ‘Debbie, I got the job and I have no idea what I’m doing.’ So, that’s how my coaching career began.

“It was a bit of a jolt, but it was exactly what I needed as an individual. I needed an opportunity, I needed somewhere where I could learn my trade, I needed a community that was gonna support me — not only a hockey community, but a community that was passionate about the game, that had a good board of directors. And I got all of that as a very young coach, so I’m so thankful that I got that opportunity for two years in North Battleford. It really set me up and it allowed me to gain true passion for the coaching profession. And from there, it just went on.”

Todd McLellan laments the amount of talented players who will never consider joining the coaching ranks
March 27 2020

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.