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Monday, December 9
Updated: December 10, 5:18 PM ET
Coaches the butt of a cyclical joke

By Terry Frei
Special to

Darryl Sutter either took stupid pills over the summer or watched "Dumb and Dumber" so many times, it rubbed off. So when the Sharks stumbled out the gate without Evgeni Nabokov and Brad Stuart, then didn't immediately turn it around after the holdouts were signed, Sutter was shoved out the door -- apparently because the new franchise ownership wanted it that way.

The Flames won their first game under interim coach Al MacNeil -- 2-1 at Colorado.
Greg Gilbert messed up that great material at Calgary, so he became the Flames' fifth ex-coach in a decade.

Bob Hartley, who has been behind the bench as Colorado at least has made the Western Conference finals in every season of his tenure, now allegedly has lost his touch.

And Atlanta's Curt Fraser and Nashville's Barry Trotz were lucky to keep their jobs through their recent expansion franchise's horrible starts.

The above is among what you'd think, at least, if you subscribed to NHL conventional wisdom.

NHL conventional wisdom is that a head coach has a term limit of effectiveness, as assuredly as if Congress or Parliament formalized it with legislation.

NHL conventional wisdom is that every head coach reaches a point where his message is treated as if he's trying to deliver it via a cell phone that has only one of those eight little squiggly signal-strength indicator lines showing on the screen. (And you thought sportswriters don't understand this technical stuff.)

NHL conventional wisdom is that if the franchise hasn't drafted a decent player in 11 seasons; or hasn't re-signed its unrestricted free agents; or has made seven rotten trades in a row, the general manager eventually proclaims that everyone is in it together -- but then implies with his action that the coach should have been able to make chicken salad. (However, a long-time GM never, ever says: "Who hired this idiot?")

We've gone over the scapegoat theory before. That phenomenon, of course, isn't unique to hockey; hockey only subscribes to it with the most enthusiasm, and the funny thing is that everyone in the game -- and sometimes, even the affected coaches themselves -- seems to accept it as much of a given as the Pythagorean Theorem.

Of course, it's a lot easier for a coach to shrug and accept it as part of the business when he has time left on his contract, and he also knows he's part of the network and never will be out of work -- even if "work" means eating hot dogs in the press box and playing golf, weather permitting, as a "pro scout."

Yes, mediocre or bad coaches get fired, too, after failing to nudge teams at least into overachieving territory. But good coaches, too, prematurely get the axe because front offices believe the move deflects the heat and is the easiest way to signify that "something" is being done.

The "tune-out" theory, though, is more interesting, because it's a fascinating study in how "accepted" aspects of the game often are true -- but mainly because they're allowed to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

It's kind of like drinking eggnog in December. We drink it not because we like that swill, but because we think we're supposed to drink it or be relegated to go stand in the corner with The Grinch and Scrooge.

(Come on, does ANYONE like eggnog? If it's so darned great, how come nobody drinks it in July -- as an accompaniment to a slice of fruitcake?)

So, absolutely, there is something to the "tune-out" theory.

That's because when a team is perceived to be underachieving under a coach who has lasted longer than the NHL norm (37 days), that "tune-out" talk is the convenient excuse for the players and "savvy" subject matter for those of us who discuss or cover the game.

A coach is tuned out because he's "supposed" to be tuned out. Heck, if the roster has had a 90 percent turnover since the coach has taken over, that doesn't matter. His message is perceived to have become old -- to everyone.

A coach is "tuned out" because the players know that's the accepted fashion of the game. They're being told that's why they're underachieving and they know their coach's tenure is likely to end soon, anyway.
And perception becomes reality.

We write about the coach being "in trouble." Why? He's being "tuned out." We say that because it's a given, and it makes us sound perceptive.

That's also the buzz around the league, among the game's insiders.

We don't know what came first -- the chicken or the egg, the puck or the stick -- but the speculation usually precedes the reality. A coach is "tuned out" because the players know that's the accepted fashion of the game. They're being told that's why they're underachieving and they know their coach's tenure is likely to end soon, anyway. And the other reality is that winning teams often do it while only nominally or grudgingly paying attention to their coaches in the first place.

So the cycle continues.

Ken Hitchcock was an intransigent and grating pain at Dallas, but that was OK until the first major bump in the road, when the players who never had loved him in the first place suddenly "tuned him out." Now he's still the same intransigent and grating pain at Philadelphia, and he will be a genius until Bobby Clarke needs to dodge the blame again and decides Hitchcock's stubborn ways means the players have tuned out the coach.

Robbie Ftorek wore out his welcome (quickly) at New Jersey, but he's a brilliant coach now at Boston -- at least as long as the Bruins continue to get more bang for the buck than any other team in the NHL ... in the regular season. After that, the Bruins will be "tuning him out."

This didn't work with Scotty Bowman and the Red Wings, of course, but that's an aberration. Everyone understands Bowman and his players never were on the same frequency -- the players were FM and Scotty was AM -- but that was part of his effectiveness. He was adaptable to the trends of the game, and able to motivate players who alternately were angry at him and scratching their head about his quirkiness.

Brian Sutter is a stubborn, old-school coach, but he deserved Adams Trophy votes two years ago for his work with a terrible team; he instead was fired because the Flames, ahem, had tired of his voice. Two more firings later, the folly of Sutter's exit should be obvious.

Until the NHL dilutes its conventional wisdom with more reasoned approaches, such as the one Nashville GM David Poile so far has shown with Trotz, or the Blues have shown with Joel Quenneville through both achievement and disappointment, its impatience with coaches will continue to be a running joke.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to He will be discussing and signing his new book, "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Cherry Creek Tattered Cover in Denver; and on Friday from 6-8 p.m. at the Borders, 9515 East County Line Road in Englewood, Colo.

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