by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He leaves the job the way he entered it, as a gentleman, no harsh words. These traits, of course, are also why Bryan Murray is finished coaching in Detroit. No more Mr. Nice Guys. Suddenly, they say, we need a man with a whip.

This is hockey. It changes coaches the way teenage girls change outfits in front of the mirror. First they think this looks good, then that, then the first thing again. Murray was given the Red Wings job three years ago because the last coach, Jacques Demers, was too emotional, relied too much on motivation. Now Murray is out because he didn’t motivate enough.

And Demers, with another team, is in the Stanley Cup finals.

What makes a good coach in the NHL? Simple. A hot goalie. You show me a hot goalie, I’ll show you a genius behind the bench. Take the St. Louis Blues. They barely made the playoffs. Then, in the first round, Curtis Joseph, their kid in the net, became human flypaper — stopped 40 shots a game — and they beat the first-place Chicago Blackhawks. Boom! The St. Louis coach was brilliant.

See how it works? Felix Potvin, Toronto goalie, eats his Wheaties, the Leafs are on the verge of the finals, now coach Pat Burns is a whiz.

Funny. He wasn’t such a whiz when his team lost Games 1, 2 and 6 to Detroit.

How about Patrick Roy, the Montreal goalie? He goes nuts in the net, the Canadiens win 11 straight, and now everyone in Montreal is convinced that Jacques Demers is Knute Rockne.

You know what I think? I think they give these coaches the wrong equipment. A desk, a whistle.

They should give them a mask and a stick. Personality contest

“I believe in what I did here,” Murray said, after relinquishing his coaching duties Wednesday following a meeting with Wings owner Mike Ilitch.
“It was my way of doing things.

“But coaching is personality. And it’s time to bring someone else in. I knew it after we lost in (the first round of) the playoffs. I told my team that someone else would coach them next year.”

Murray, who stays on as GM, will have huge input in choosing that person. So he has this unique task: looking for someone who is what he isn’t.

Maybe that will help. But let me ask a question: What exactly did Murray do wrong? What moment can you point to that shows how bad a coach he was?

What I recall is a Red Wings team that had more than 100 points in the regular season.

What I recall is a Red Wings team that everyone predicted was going to the Stanley Cup finals.

What I recall is a Red Wings team that found itself on the lip of elimination in the first round, went into Toronto, enemy ice, and absolutely crushed the Leafs. Embarrassed them, 7-3, to force a seventh game. That night, as the building emptied, I, like many people, thought to myself, “Wow, Bryan Murray did some serious coaching tonight.”

Then in Game 7, they lose at home.

Tell me. Did Murray go lame in two days?

Did he develop amnesia? Or did the players simply not perform up to snuff
— particularly the goaltender?

“I know what you’re saying,” Murray admitted. “I’ve been saying it all along. You don’t get 101 or 103 points in the regular season and suddenly forget how to coach.”

But that’s the knock on Murray. He goes cold in April. Is a stiff by May. Now he’s out by June. He leaves the bench with an inky playoff stain on his otherwise impressive coaching career. And the profile is already drawn for the new guy:

“Someone who will be more vocal, maybe push the players, bench them faster,” Murray said.

And what, he is asked, if that new coach has a good regular season next year, gets to the playoffs and is also eliminated early?

“Then I’ll get rid of some players. You can’t change the man in charge every year.”

No matter how hard they try. Nothing logical

Isn’t it funny? In baseball, a guy like Sparky Anderson, who rarely talks to his players, is considered a brilliant manager. In football, the guys who get in your face are hailed as winners. In hockey, you’re supposed to be something in between, someone who says “Let’s go boys!” just enough to get them going.

Of course, you could make a case that NHL players are paid enough to be in top form come playoff time all by themselves. But, as they say, you can’t fire the whole team.

So Murray steps aside. He admits the playoff thing will “hurt for a while.” But with manners, grace and a calm that may have sunk him, he clears out the desk. He still has the GM job. And, as he says, this is hockey. It’s wonderful, wacky and completely screwed up by its reliance on hot goaltenders, inconsistent penalty calling and a belief that all but the lame and crippled should make the playoffs.

By the way, the leading candidate to replace Murray is Scotty Bowman of the Penguins, the only team to have greater playoff disappointment this year than Detroit.

Logic? This is not about logic. It’s about change. It’s about standing in front of the mirror, trying outfit after outfit, until you say “this one works” and you go out to see what the world thinks. If you’re lucky, you turn some heads. Otherwise, they chop yours off and start over again.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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