5 greatest pro/college coaches
In a bygone era, college hockey coaches were even more overlooked for professional jobs than their players. When NHL teams started taking chances on accomplished NCAA bench bosses, the initial results reinforced their misgivings.
Look no further than Detroit’s “Darkness with Harkness.” One year after winning the 1970 national title, decorated Cornell coach Ned Harkness lasted 38 games with the pros’ red-and-white program. By 1975, he was back in the ECAC with Union College.
Other head coaches have tried their hand at both the NCAA and AHL, with unremarkable results in one or both. The likes of Tim Army and Walt Kyle have held assistant positions in the NHL, but nothing beyond that.
But as far back as the 1980s, others have glamorously graduated from U.S. college to The Show. And in the latter half of this decade, taking a prominent coach from one level directly to the next has become trendy.
Three years after Phildelphia lured Dave Hakstol from Philadelphia, two more college hockey coaches have replicated his path. This offseason, Jim Montgomery has gone from Dallas to Denver while the New York Rangers have enlisted Boston University’s Dave Quinn.
Taking at least one more stepping stone for now, Mark Dennehy has left Merrimack for the AHL’s Binghamton Devils.
Meanwhile, depending on how the NWHL and CWHL come along, there could be similar transitions in the women’s game. At least one exemplary women’s college hockey coach has already gone on to an ornate stint in the pros.
The quantity of head coaches with considerable experience in both ranks is sure to grow. Here is the quality they have to match to furher legitimize the practice. All statistics and award information are according to USCHO, the Internet Hockey Database and Elite Prospects.
Honorable mention: Dave Hakstol
Hakstol has yet to translate his success from North Dakota. But the Flyers made him the first of this decade’s NCAA-to-NHL jumps after he made 11 straight runs to the national tournament.
The Hakstol era in Grand Forks began with a berth in the 2005 NCAA championship game. From there, his program finished first in its conference twice, won four WCHA tournaments and reached six more Frozen Fours.
Honorable mention: Steve Stirling
Currently a scout in Ottawa, Stirling spent the bulk of his coaching career at Babson College. The Beavers racked up a winning record in each of 13 nonconsecutive seasons under his direction.
In between Division II and Division III stints at Babson, Stirling succeeded with a bigger challenge at Providence. He helped the Friars to a 21-12-2 record in their final ECAC season, then the first Hockey East tournament championship and a spot in the 1985 national final.
Stirling’s stint in The Show was decidedly less successful. The New York Islanders dismissed him in 2006 after one-and-a-half seasons. However, he earned his chance by leading the Bridgeport Sound Tigers to the 2002 Calder Cup Final.
5. Jeff Blashill
After nine years as a collegiate assistant, then two successful USHL campaigns, Blashill got his crack at an NCAA head position. It lasted one year, culminating in Western Michigan’s CCHA playoff triumph and automatic bid to the 2011 national tournament.
The reason he did not stay in Kalamazoo was because Detroit gave him a look on its staff. By the next season, he shuffled to Grand Rapids, where he was tabbed to direct the region’s AHL team.
As with the 2008-09 Indiana Ice and 2010-11 Broncos, Blashill made his first year a banner year with the Griffins. The 17-year-old franchise won its first Calder Cup on his watch in 2013. He managed two more multi-round playoff runs and won an AHL coaching award before being promoted to The Show.
4. Andy Murray
Blashill’s successor at WMU already had 10 full or partial NHL coaching campaigns to his credit.
Granted, Murray did not achieve much beyond longevity in Los Angeles and St. Louis. With that said, he led the Kings to a memorable first-round upset of Detroit in the 2001 playoffs. They almost went farther before losing Game 7 to the eventual champions from Colorado. He mustered 480 regular-season games in L.A., and would leave as the franchise’s all-time winningest coach.
A promising start in St. Louis ended after two straight non-playoff runs, a first-round exit and a middling start to 2009-10. But Murray had long since found solid ice in Kalamazoo. On his watch, the underdog Broncos returned to the NCAA tournament in 2012, and again in 2017 while playing in an uber-competitive NCHC conference.
3. Herb Brooks
Inheriting a moribund Minnesota program in 1972, Brooks had the Gophers back above .500, and then some, by his sophomore season. After a 15-16-3 finish the year prior, his alma mater won its first national championship in 1974.
Only a loss to Michigan Tech in the next year’s final prevented a would-be three-peat. Brooks’ team regained the glory in 1976, and once more in 1979. From there, he was off to the Olympics, where the Miracle on Ice and gold-medal triumph helped land him in the pros.
With the Rangers, Brooks generated three straight winning seasons, He was replaced in the middle of his fourth season, helped launch St. Cloud State’s program in 1986-87, then had brief NHL reigns in Minnesota, New Jersey and Pittsburgh. As his last head-coaching endeavor, other than the 2002 Olympics, he led the Penguins to the second round of the 2000 playoffs.
2. Digit Murphy
Five egregious records at the tail-end of her tenure did not lessen Murphy’s earlier accomplishments at Brown University. She had previously led the Bears to 13 winning seasons in a 14-year span.
The program peaked between 1994 and 2002, finishing first in the ECAC four times, winning three conference postseason pennants and reaching the second-ever NCAA final.
When Murphy parted ways with Brown, she had posted 318 career wins there. After a season out of coaching, she landed with the CWHL’s Boston Blades, and won two Clarkson Cups in three years.
Adding to her trophy case, she was named the league’s top bench boss in 2012-13.
1. Bob Johnson
The “Badger Bob” moniker came from 15 winning seasons in a 16-year reign behind the Wisconsin bench.
By 1982, Johnson had led the Badgers to seven Frozen Fours and three national titles. When they fell one game short of a repeat championship, he got a consolation prize in a crack at The Show. He went to Calgary, where he oversaw five winning campaigns out of six total.
Under Johnson’s guidance, the Flames never finished below the middle of the five-team Smythe Division. They thrice reached the playoff division final, upsetting the rival Oilers en route to the Stanley Cup Final in 1986.
In his first year with Pittsburgh, Johnson returned to the final and directed the Penguins to their first championship. Tragically, he was diagnosed with brain caner in subsequent 1991 offseason. He passed away three months later, but the Pens, Badgers and USA Hockey alike continue to acknowledge his exceptional legacy.