July 23rd, 2024

Here today, gone tomorrow: How NHL relationships change after a firing

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on December 13, 2023.

Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft, back, stands on the bench behind Connor McDavid, front from left to right, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks, in Vancouver, on November 6, 2023. Connor McDavid has played for five coaches in his nine NHL seasons. He's watched four walk out the door. "It's very hard," the Edmonton Oilers captain said of a bench boss getting fired. "Professional sports, people sometimes forget the human side of it. There's a relationship there. "These are people with families and it's hard." THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Connor McDavid has played for five coaches in his nine NHL seasons.

He’s watched four walk out the door.

“It’s very hard,” the Edmonton Oilers captain said of a bench boss getting fired. “Professional sports, people sometimes forget the human side of it. There’s a relationship there.

“These are people with families and it’s hard.”

It’s also a part of the high-stakes game.

But how does the relationship change between a player, especially one in the leadership group like McDavid, who experienced Jay Woodcroft’s dismissal last month after a disastrous start to the season, and a former coach when the dust settles?

These are people often in communication – meetings, calls, texts – on a daily basis in search of the right formula for success.

Then all of a sudden, one is not longer around.

The St. Louis Blues were the third team to make a coaching change this season when they fired Craig Berube, who led the team to its 2019 Stanley Cup victory, on Tuesday night.

New York Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said those types of connections don’t just evaporate.

“You care about the guy, he cares about you “¦ it’s over like that,” said Trouba, who waved goodbye to Gerard Gallant when he was handed his pink slip in May. “You call him and wish him well. I still talk to former coaches.”

He added there’s a lot more than just a working relationship in many instances.

“You build friendships in a way,” Trouba said. “We go through a lot ups and downs. Going to the conference final with (Gallant in 2022), we have a lot of great memories. He’s not someone out of your life and gone forever.

“He was the coach when I was named captain. I’ll always remember these things and it will always be a part of my career. That’s not something you just push out the door and forget about.”

That can also go for general managers.

Kyle Dubas, who was fired as general manager by the Maple Leafs in May, was instrumental in bringing John Tavares home to Toronto in free agency.

And it was on his watch Tavares became captain.

“We exchanged messages when the change happened,” said the player. “But definitely hard to put it all into context in just a few words. It’s a lot to take in “¦ usually some time passes.”

Dubas was a hands-on executive. He was there when Tavares suffered a gruesome injury in the 2021 playoffs, and kept his family up-to-date in those anxious moments after he was stretchered off the ice.

“There’s always going to be a strong relationship between him and myself and other guys he had a big influence on,” Tavares said. “As time goes on, there’s more appreciation, more understanding.”

Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said he spoke with Dubas, who quickly joined the Pittsburgh Penguins as their president of hockey operations, following the stunning change.

“I’ve probably felt that with him leaving more than I have in the past,” Rielly said. “Just part of the business.”

But not all situations and relationships are the same.

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice doesn’t tend to stay in touch with former players.

“I’m not a connector or an over-communicator,” he said. “Send me a text, you’ll get an answer five days later. I don’t stay in contact with a lot of them. They’re all fine. They didn’t need me at the start. I coached them, and when I left they were fine, too.

“Actually probably a little happier.”

Seattle Kraken GM and Hall of Famer Ron Francis said players feel a level of guilt when a coach takes the fall.

“Didn’t get the job done and that’s what cost him his job,” he said. “Everybody goes into this knowing you can be traded or fired at any point.

“Nature of the beast.”

It doesn’t make any easier.

“Definitely takes a toll,” McDavid said. “But just makes you cherish those moments that you have with your teammates and your coaches all the more.”

SURGING OILERS

The coaching change in Edmonton that saw Kris Knoblauch replace Woodcroft seems to have worked.

The Oilers were sinking at 3-9-1 when the axe fell, but now sit 13-12-1 thanks to an eight-game win streak that includes seven regulation victories.

MATTHEWS FIRING

Auston Matthews had a bit of a down 2022-23, at least by his standards, with 40 goals in 74 games after scoring 60 times in 73 contests in 2021-22.

The Leafs centre is back filling the net.

Matthews has 21 in 26 games this season – good for a 66-goal pace that would tie Phil Esposito (1971-72) and Lanny McDonald (1982-83) for 21st on the NHL’s all-time single season list.

-With files from Tyler Griffin in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 13, 2023.

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Joshua Clipperton’s weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.

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