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Maybe It’s Time For the NHL to Stop Recycling Head Coaches

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The same group of head coaches gets passed around the league over & over

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one thing the National Hockey League is great at, it’s recycling.

Recycling coaches, that is. For what seems like an eternity, most of the same group of head coaches have been passed around the league and its teams, one after the other. At times, it seems like the only way to get an NHL head coaching job is to have already had one before - whether it was last year or 10 years ago.

Take Darryl Sutter, for example. Sutter was hired earlier this month to sit at the helm of the Calgary Flames, replacing Geoff Ward. Sutter has previously served as head coach in the Chicago, San Jose and Los Angeles franchises, as well as Calgary. John Tortorella, now head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, previously held the same role in Vancouver, New York, Tampa Bay and New York (again).

It’s a pattern in these coaching hires that is clearly evident, and to a point, understandable. Of the 31 men serving as head coaches in the NHL, 19 of them have played the same role for at least one other team. While some teams are slowly starting to hire “fresh blood,” for others, it’s recycle, recycle, recycle.

Peter Laviolette, who has coached three teams to the Stanley Cup Finals, is currently behind the bench in Washington. The Capitals are the fifth team of his career. Rick Bowness’ current tenure with the Stars is his sixth NHL head coaching job. Others who have bounced around include Alain Vigneault, Paul Maurice and Dave Tippett.

Obviously, having experience as an NHL head coach is valuable when a team is looking for a head coach. It’s easy to consider someone who has served in the role before, and even easier if they’re a well-known or respected figure. But this unspoken requirement - of needing the experience in order to get the experience - could also keep some well-deserving figures out of head coaching roles down the line, including women and minorities. (The same can be said of roles in scouting and other hockey ops positions!)

At some point in the future, many of the men currently in the head coaching rotation in the NHL are going to retire. Bruce Boudreau, reportedly a candidate for the Sabres gig, is 66, the same age as Bowness. Sutter, Tortorella and Joel Quenneville are all 62. Lindy Ruff just turned 61, and Alain Vigneault and Dave Tippett are 59. And even if their age isn’t a factor, the cost of hiring them could be.

So it’s not just about giving other people an opportunity, either. At some point, these guys just won’t be options anymore. In the past few years, we’ve started to see some NHL teams break this cycle and hire first-time NHL head coaches. It’s certainly worked out well for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had Jon Cooper develop for three seasons in their AHL system before calling him up to the NHL. It was a similar path for Travis Green, who coached in the WHL and for four years in the AHL before being promoted by Vancouver, and Jared Bednar, too.

Rod Brind’Amour is only in his third season coaching with the Carolina Hurricanes, but he spent many years with the organization as an assistant and development coach. New York Rangers head coach Derek Quinn is new to the NHL head coaching role, but previously served in college hockey, USA Hockey and the AHL. Jeff Blashill coached Western Michigan, in the USHL and the AHL before jumping to the NHL.

As for the age factor: Jeremy Colliton, head coach in Chicago, is just 36. John Hynes (Nashville) is 46, while Dominique Ducharme (Montreal) is 48. This is the new wave, and it’s just beginning.

So what’s my point?

Not to get too deep here, but this goes far beyond any NHL rink or office. It speaks to the importance of developing coaches at other levels of hockey, from the American Hockey League to juniors and college, too. It also speaks to the importance of opening up those roles to people who may not have previously been welcomed in those spaces. It’s why the NHL Coaches Association’s Female Coaches Development Program and BIPOC Coaches Program are so important. It’s why seeing Joel Ward get named an assistant coach for the Henderson Silver Knights was so freaking awesome.

It’s a double-edged sword. It’s understandable for NHL teams to want someone with experience, and especially to want a proven winner at the professional level. But at the same time, that often means passing the same guys around over and over and over. It means that when a job opening comes up, you already know what names will be on the list; it’s predictable.

It means that bringing in “fresh blood” to help revive a struggling team often really just means bringing in “blood that’s already been used somewhere else, often by multiple other teams” and cycling through the same group of men. There are undoubtedly pros and cons to bringing in men who already have NHL head coaching experience, but if NHL teams are serious about wanting to shake it up, there’s really nothing stopping them, except perhaps societal expectations.

No, it doesn’t mean that every single person out there is qualified. (I see you, couch coaches on Twitter dot com.) It doesn’t mean every person who’s coached at any level of hockey could, or should, be an NHL head coach. But it does mean thinking outside the box - for real this time - and considering other options that may not be at the forefront of your mind. Next time there’s an NHL coaching gig that opens up, stop and think about candidates who are outside the realm of that same group of (mostly white) men who get passed around the league constantly. If you think there aren’t any qualified candidates outside of that group — think again.