Hall of Fame player Phil Housley takes on the NHL coaching challenge. Source: Getty Images
There have only been a handful of Hall of Fame players who were able to make a truly successful transition to coaching in the NHL. Phil Housley, the Buffalo Sabres' new bench boss, has a chance to join the exclusive group.
You can count the number of Hall of Fame players on one hand who have had meaningful and sustained success as coaches in the NHL. Literally. And we can use the word literally and not be worried that we actually mean literally.
That’s because there’s really only five men – Jack Adams, Toe Blake, Lester Patrick, Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson – who have been both Hall of Fame players and Hall of Fame-caliber coaches. Guys such as Bob Gainey, Patrick Roy and Red Kelly were very good coaches, but have not had the same kind of success as The Big Five.
So into that steps Phil Housley, the Hall of Fame defenseman who surprised absolutely no one by being named the next coach of the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. It’s kind of strange, actually. Some guys you look at as players and never really think they’re cut out to be head coaches in the NHL. Housley is one of those guys for me. Of course, Bruce Boudreau, Randy Carlyle and Travis Green never struck me as players who would end up coaching in the NHL, either.
Generally speaking, though, great players have not made the best coaches. Wayne Gretzky coached for four years in the NHL and never experienced a playoff game. Phil Esposito failed to make it out of the first round. Rocket Richard lasted all of one game with the Quebec Nordiques in the World Hockey Association.
Some of that certainly has to do with the fact that the truly great players likely can’t comprehend why the vast majority of players can’t do the things they were able to do, which has to be a little frustrating. But probably more often, it’s because the Hall of Fame players were installed in their positions without having to prove themselves as coaches. They were put behind the bench with little to no experience and proved to be in way over their heads.
And that’s where Housley is different. By virtue of the fact that they’re already wildly wealthy when they retire, a lot of modern players might not want to put the work in that’s required to learn the coaching or management sides of the game. Steve Yzerman was one exception, Rob Blake another. (And Chris Pronger will undoubtedly be another once he joins hockey’s management ranks.) But Housley had nothing handed to him when it came to coaching. Rather than walk into a ready-made situation, Housley cut his teeth coaching high school hockey in Minnesota, building a respectable program at Stillwater High School. And he didn’t simply take on a Minnesota powerhouse. He joined a program that was 49-118-7 in the seven years prior to his arrival. He left Stillwater with a 109-109-21 record.
USA Hockey took notice of Housley’s skill behind the bench and hired him as an assistant for its World Junior Championship teams in 2007 and 2011, before giving him the head coaching reins in 2013. Team USA won bronze medals both years Housley was an assistant and won gold with him guiding the team in 2013. That year he also was an assistant for Team USA's entry at the World Championship.
As anyone who has followed hockey knows, Housley has spent the past four years as an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators, running what is regarded as the all-round best defense corps in the league. And it should be noted that when the Predators cleaned house with their coaching staff in 2014, Housley was the only assistant coach who was retained.
“I think he’s a very smart guy,” said Preds coach Peter Laviolette of Housley during the Stanley Cup final. “He’s been great to work with. He brings a lot of experience as a player. He brings good experience as a coach. He’s detailed. He runs good meetings. He has the attention of the players. I think his game, his background, the player that he was, the hockey sense that he has, the way that he’s able to communicate to the players, is one of his biggest assets. He’s a smart guy that does a very good job communicating that.”
Predators defenseman P.K. Subban was just as effusive in his praise for Housley. “He’s one of the best defensemen ever to play,” said Subban of Housley during the final. “He commands your respect right away. When you have a guy like that to come back to the bench to, you want to soak in everything. I just want to be a sponge to take in everything he says and does.”
One other thing. It speaks volumes of Housley’s credentials that he was hired by new Sabres GM Jason Botterill, who was the associate GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins until recently. Whether it’s an old boys’ network or a case of familiarity, hockey people tend to go with guys they know, and in this case that should have been Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet. The fact that Botterill reportedly didn’t even interview Tocchet leads us to believe Housley was his man all along.
The Sabres obviously need a new look behind the bench and the fact that Housley played most of his career and had his greatest success in Buffalo will play well from a public-relations standpoint. But ultimately, Housley’s tenure will have nothing to do with his Hall of Fame status and his success will come because of all the work he did after his playing career to prepare himself for the Buffalo challenge.