Accepting a Team’s Present by Not Living in the Past

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By Avi Goldberg, Featured Contributor,  All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC. — We’ve all heard people say that fans don’t come to the games for the coaches or the general managers. The accuracy of this sentiment is highlighted by the painful absence of NHL competition and player storylines during the lockout, yet at times like the trade deadline, the free agency period, and the firing and hiring of a coach, fans give their rapt attention to the GMs. Following hockey through the intrigue of coaching and managing can also be compelling when these positions are held by former players who are adored for their on-ice careers. As we wait and wonder if the players and games will return in time for the holidays, this is a tale of the consequences of investing emotionally in management and coaching with the hope that a team’s success will be delivered by its playing heroes of the past.

Born in Montreal but raised in Edmonton, I have always split my team loyalties between the Habs and the Oilers. After early family training in obsessing over the Canadiens during playoff games, I spent my teenage years with the Oilers dynasty serving as the religion that tied me to my friends and city. Though I idolized the play of Robinson, Naslund, Messier, Fuhr, and Tikkanen, the Oilers and the Habs drew additional loyalty from me by bringing some of my other favourite former players into professional positions. In both team success and my resulting sentiments as a fan, the parallels are uncanny.

As it addresses the curious post-playing professional careers of Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau with the Canadiens, my first story is undoubtedly recognizable to Habs fans.

In awe of his five Stanley Cups as a player with Montreal, his experience as captain, and his performance as the top defensive player of his day, I felt an awakening of real optimism when Gainey was hired to be GM in 2003. And though the circumstances surrounding his appointment as head coach were not outlined in the GM’s five-year plan, the fact that Carbonneau was brought in strengthened the legitimacy of team management in my eyes. With two revered former players at the helm, I believed that the dark years of Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien 1.0, and Andre Savard were starting to fade in the rear-view mirror.

As almost everything about team affairs was wildly inconsistent under the Gainey-Carbonneau regime, my warm feelings quickly cooled. Aside from the heights achieved during a strong regular season in 2007-2008, dysfunction prevailed. Between intimate old port walks shared by the GM and the team’s enigmatic star player, the coach’s inability to explain his squad’s indifferent play, and endless debates about goaltending and the organization’s inability to develop and look after its young prospects, I felt I was following a soap opera, not the systematic renewal of a once proud hockey power.

The Habs limped into the playoffs during their highly promoted centennial season and were swept by the hated Bruins in four games. My suspicion that the team was organizationally rudderless was practically confirmed when Gainey resigned as GM in 2010, less than one year after showing Carbonneau the door. Notwithstanding the tantalizing run to the conference finals overseen by Jacques Martin and Pierre Gauthier, to me, Gainey’s final organizational hires merely capped off a managerial track record marked by mediocrity and drama.

The Gainey-Carbonneau duo did not live up to the expectations I projected on them based on their collective past.

Possibly less familiar to Canadiens fans, my Oilers story centres on another former playing duo for which I had great admiration, that of Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish.

The Oilers first ever draft choice, winner of five Stanley Cups with the team, and steadiest of defenseman, Lowe spent one season as Edmonton’s head coach before being named GM to replace Glen Sather in 2000. Meanwhile, after a year in prison for having committed vehicular homicide, MacTavish joined the Oilers in 1985 and, unexpectedly, helped the team win three championships as a pre-eminent shut down third line centre. After two years coaching with the New York Rangers, MacTavish returned to Edmonton as assistant coach in 1999 and was named head coach upon Lowe’s promotion to GM. With both men experienced as on-ice captains, and with each regarded as a winner, I saw the Lowe-MacTavish team as the perfect leadership scenario for the twenty-first century Oilers.

The Oilers did ice some gritty teams under Lowe and MacTavish. Notably, my heart raced through highly competitive playoff series against the much deeper Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche during which leaders like Ryan Smyth, Doug Weight, and Todd Marchant put in heart and soul performances. The pinnacle, however, came in 2005-2006. That’s when Lowe astonished Oilers fans by acquiring Chris Pronger and Mike Pecca prior to the regular season and MacTavish deftly rode the hot goaltending of another late season pick up, Dwayne Roloson, to a trip to the finals that ended honourably in a seventh game loss to Carolina. Although the surprise run stirred up magic and joy I had not felt since the early-1990s, my belief in MacTavish and Lowe’s potential to do it again evaporated the moment Pronger told the world he wanted out of Edmonton. Oilers fans are still waiting for the team to recover.

So, due to my indelible net memories of management conflicts with players, oddly timed trades of valuable players, desperate efforts to lure free agents that ended in failure and league ridicule, and of a battle between a hapless coach and an arch rival’s team mascot, I view 2006 as an accidental happenstance rather than an outcome of the deliberate workings of a competent regime.

The Lowe-MacTavish duo did not live up to the expectations I projected on them based on their collective past.

From two organizations that share having glory days in the ever distant past, recent levels of mediocrity, and whose coaching-managerial compositions have been eerily similar in their playing pedigrees, I now know better how to be a fan today.

From the underwhelming records of my teams in general, I know that championships of the past are not only hard to repeat but also set the bar of my expectations impossibly high. Both Habs and Oilers are in the middle of organizational transitions but I will forever refrain from expecting the accomplishments of the past to portend success in the future.

From seeing the painful struggles of my dream managements teams, I also know that the hometown players who were superhuman on the ice may not be well-suited to lead from the bench or from the front office. By comparing successful mangers like Kenny Holland, Peter Chiarelli, and Dean Lombardi, and in thinking about accomplished coaches like Claude Julien, Joel Quenneville, and Darryl Sutter, it’s hard to identify the factors that make it work. I have my doubts about the potentials of both current regimes in both Montreal and Edmonton, but I also know now to look beyond local heroes when my teams are seeking new coaching and management personnel.

Finally, from having sufficient time to heal from the coaching-management experiments in which I invested so heavily, I also know not to allow the non-playing parts of my playing heroes’ careers to erase the memories of what they did on the ice. Whether it was a resounding hit, a spirited penalty kill, or a timely and team-inspiring goal, my favourite players performed at the highest possible level when it counted the most. Yes, they gave me little to cheer for when they donned the suits and ties, and they also failed to prepare their clubs to be competitive today, but I have chosen to separate these unfortunate facts from what I saw them do a long time before.

Following favourite teams through the ups and downs of their coaches and managers can be fun. When it comes to a favourite team’s former playing heroes, however, it might be best for everyone to leave the glory in the past.

Follow me on Twitter to keep the conversation going: @AviGoldberg