Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky were each legends in their time and spent time with the Rangers, but haven't been involved in the coaching game enough to be worthy of consideration for the job in New York. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
New York Rangers GM Glen Sather is in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder, so he probably doesn’t need my advice. Then again, look at his recent record as a GM. At what point does the latter begin to cancel out the former?
In any event, here it is: Mr. Sather, whatever you do about filling the vacancy for head coach, under no circumstances can you hire either Mark Messier or Wayne Gretzky for the job. Live with the unrelenting backlash that will inevitably come from a good number of your fans, but resist the temptation.
Yup, this is probably hockey sacrilege, but the opinion from this corner is that if the Rangers pass on some of the very viable options out there right now and hire either Messier or Gretzky, they’ll be making an error of biblical proportions. The Rangers would undoubtedly win the news conference, but they’d probably lose an awful lot of hockey games. Sure, things could work out in New York with Messier or Gretzky behind the bench. But they could also turn into an 18-car pileup. Pretty sure I know which one I’m putting my money on if that comes to pass.
The problem with making Messier or Gretzky coach of the Rangers is that coaching is a vocation. Dabblers need not apply, unless of course you consider a third-place finish in the 2010 Deutschland Cup and a second-place finish in the 2010 Spengler Cup as relevant coaching experience. Coaching at the NHL level is not something you fall into, or that you give a try because you think you might be as good at it as you were a player. Coaching is a craft that is learned over years of hard work and experimentation. You spend years learning which buttons to push and you pick up intricacies of the game that none but the most trained eye can see. You get a feel for your players and your bench and you learn what it takes to gain an advantage over the opposition during the frenetic pace of a game.
Just because you played the game very, very well and you have a competitive instinct a mile wide doesn’t mean you can coach. It doesn’t mean you can’t coach either, but the stakes are simply far too high at the NHL level to hand the levers of control to someone who has never held them at any level. If Mark Messier wants to become a coach, that’s fantastic. I’m sure there are a lot of teams in the American League or ECHL who would love to have him behind the bench.
And this is New York, for goodness sake. Are the Rangers going to sell one more ticket because a legend who led them to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years is behind the bench? You could understand why the Phoenix Coyotes hired Gretzky to coach their team. They needed a presence somewhere in that organization and Gretzky was too old to play for them. But what they quickly learned is that while fans might like the idea of a proven winner behind the bench, people aren’t going to pay money to watch him stand there in a suit if he can’t win hockey games.
Everyone seems to think Messier would automatically send the Rangers compete level off the charts because that was the kind of leader he was when he played. Fair enough. But when was the last time the Rangers were accused of being a bunch of lollygaggers?
Under John Tortorella, there was nothing wrong with their effort. It was execution that was the biggest problem and his insistence on playing an ultra-defensive style of hockey that did not suit the personnel he had. The Rangers could not score, were terrible on the power play and didn’t have even close to enough of a killer instinct in crucial situations. But the will to win was always there. Messier won’t be able to instill that in his players any more than Tortorella.
If the Rangers are intent on hiring either Messier or Gretzky, have at it. But when the likes of Alain Vigneault, Lindy Ruff, Dallas Eakins and (possibly) Dave Tippett are out there - people who have made a career of learning coaching and are very good at it - they won’t be doing themselves any favors. And once the fans begin to turn on players they once revered because they can’t run a power play or can’t make it to practice one day because they have an endorsement commitment, they won’t be doing Messier or Gretzky any favors, either.
So go ahead and hire one of those guys as a figurehead coach. But bring in Vigneault or Ruff or Eakins or Tippett or Mike Eaves from the University of Wisconsin as an associate coach and give him more money than anyone else could ever think of offering him in return for the anonymity that will come with not being the front man, but being the guy who does the actual coaching.
Then perhaps Messier or Gretzky might have a chance at success. And the guy might even learn some things about coaching at the NHL level along the way.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.