Coaching at the pro level is a tough gig. When things go wrong, the man behind the bench is typically the first to face the music whether it’s in the form of public criticism or leaning under a guillotine. Some coaches handle it in different ways. You have your nice guy coaches, who form relationships with the media and are beloved for their approachable personalities. Then you have your no-nonsense coaches, who aren’t afraid to drag their players through the mud if they aren’t satisfied with their performances. And finally, you have your batshit crazy coaches, who frankly couldn’t give a hoot about working with the media or respecting their peers. You know, the kind of coaches that throw objects on the ice or attempt to crawl over the glass between the benches to give his opposition an earful—or shoe-ful, as we’ll find out soon.
It’s only natural that feuds form between players and coaches and coaches and management, or any combination of those. Personalities often clash and the resulting mayhem is fodder for the media and fans. After all, this is entertainment, and nothing gets people talking like a juicy storyline, especially one laced with hatred and controversy. As long as the NHL, or any sports league, endures, these feuds will never cease. It’s part of the game, plain and simple.
With that in mind, sit back, grab a hockey-themed sports drink and enjoy this list of the 10 most controversial NHL coaches. Whether it’s feuds with the players, management, or opposing coaches, most of them have an interesting story attached.
10 Randy Carlyle
Randy Carlyle has had success in his coaching career, winning a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks, but a closer look at the numbers reveals a head coach who benefitted from exorbitant amounts of luck. This was epitomized during his tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which mercifully came to an end in January, as he coached some of the worst puck-possession teams in NHL history. Carlyle relied on great goaltending and unsustainably high shooting percentages to win games, all the while criticizing his players for poor defensive coverage. He clashed with the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner, and Nazem Kadri throughout his career.
9 Mike Milbury
You could make the case that Mike Milbury belongs in three independent lists as a controversial coach, player, and general manager. As a player, he infamously beat a spectator with the heel-end of his own shoe after one of his teammates was cut from a rolled up booklet by the aggressor. As a general manager, he traded Olli Jokinen and Roberto Luongo for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha—if that’s not atrocious enough for you, he also signed Alexei Yashin to a 10-year, $87.5-million contract. As a coach, he amassed a record of 146-160-45 between the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, a reflection of his old school mentality and all-around awful coaching.
8 Marc Crawford
Marc Crawford gained notoriety while coaching the Vancouver Canucks after he allegedly instructed his players to enact revenge on Steve Moore for a hit on Markus Naslund that was deemed clean. It should be noted that Crawford and the Canucks denied the claims and the two sides eventually settled. Pertaining to the hit on Naslund, it culminated in Todd Bertuzzi punching Moore in the side of the head before crumpling on top of him, with other players piling on, resulting in a career-ending injury that inflicted three broken neck vertebrae and a concussion. Crawford also had a penchant for likening goaltender Dan Cloutier as a starter despite his mediocre save percentage with the Canucks.
7 Ron Wilson
Ron Wilson has had tenuous relationships with some of the players he’s coached during his career. It started with Patrick Marleau, who he would publicly criticize for flat performances. Tension grew as the media spotlight shifted on the relationship, eventually leading to Wilson being fired in 2008 before jumping ship with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite coaching above average puck-possession teams, Wilson was plagued by abysmal goaltending in Toronto and eventually lost his job as a result. After refusing to answer media calls for years after his dismissal, Wilson recently hit the airwaves blasting Phil Kessel and the core of the Leafs being unreliable. He dished some praise as well, but it epitomized his no-nonsense personality.
6 Patrick Roy
One of the best goaltenders of all time laid the foundation for a controversial coaching career when he visibly gestured to his son, goaltender Jonathan Roy, to fight the opposing goaltender in what ultimately led to a 10-player brawl. After being hired as head coach by the Colorado Avalanche, Roy’s debut behind the bench saw him go ballistic over a questionable play. He was fined $10K for his finger pointing, glass pushing, and profanity-laced rant in the game against the Anaheim Ducks, in which his team convincingly won 6-1. As a player, he was the center of controversy when he left the Montreal Canadiens after being left between the pipes for nine goals against before finally being pulled.
5 Craig MacTavish
Is he the head coach? Is he the general manager? Is he the team captain? Nobody knows anymore. Craig MacTavish has had an eventful tenure with the Edmonton Oilers, one mired by questionable decisions and an overwhelming lack of success. In less than five years, MacTavish has been fired as head coach, hired as general manager, fired most recent coach Dallas Eakins, and made himself coach again. If that’s not dysfunctional, we’re not sure what is. His most recent hiccup was to the chagrin of Leon Draisaitl, who the Oilers kept on the roster as a 19-year-old before deciding to send him back to junior…during the World Junior Championship, ensuring his exclusion from the tournament.
4 Barry Melrose
This comment by former head coach Barry Melrose may sum up his tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning perfectly: “I hope Tampa Bay doesn’t win a game in the next year.” Melrose was criticized for his deployment of superstar Steven Stamkos, who he believed wasn’t ready for the NHL during his rookie campaign. Len Barrie, former co-owner of the Lightning claimed Melrose "didn't want Steven on this team from day one, and it was evident how he played him. Everyone knows this kid is a star player." A war of words ensued between management and Melrose, who they claimed wouldn’t do his job as expected.
3 Mike Keenan
Like John Tortorella, Mike Keenan has a propensity for experiencing short-lived tenures, whether it’s behind the bench or perched in the upper levels as general manager. He frequently found himself in power struggles, even maneuvering around management to convince the higher-ups to bring in certain players he thought would improve their playoff success. Despite his fiery demeanor, “Iron Mike” enjoyed success throughout his career as one of the winningest coaches in NHL history. He also won the KHL Championship last season, in which he had to be restrained by his assistant coach after chasing a referee off the ice following a Game 6 loss in overtime in the final series of the tournament.
2 Punch Imlach
Darryl Sittler and Punch Imlach did not get along. Imlach joined Harold Ballard’s management team and quickly established a presence, imposing dress codes and strict codes of conduct. It is believed he disliked the influence Sittler held as a player and continually attempted to undermine him. He and Ballard would trade players in an attempt to reshape the Toronto Maple Leafs, which only exacerbated the feud between the Leafs captain and Imlach. Sittler cut the “C” off his jersey in an act of rebellion against Imlach, who suffered several heart attacks in his erratic career, before having it restored when Imlach stepped back due to health concern. He would return in the early 80s, however, and continue trading Sittler’s close friends on the team to diminish his influence.
1 John Tortorella
Where to start with John Tortorella? The man seems to garner attention wherever he goes and, perhaps unsurprisingly, typically has a short shelf life. His most recent controversy had him being restrained as he attempted to enter the Calgary Flames’ locker room following a line brawl on the ice. The incident resulted in a 15-day suspension for the veteran head coach. Back when “Torts” coached the New York Rangers, he also clashed with Larry Brooks when he famously told the beat writer to “get the [expletive] out of here” after the reporter grew frustrated with his lack of comments. Chances are we’ll see him behind the bench again one day. You can bet profanity-laced tirades will follow.
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