After firing coach Fred Creighton March 22, Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden found a man to replace him on short notice who has imeccable hockey coaching credentials -- Harry Sinden.
The last time Sinden had coached a National Hockey League game was nearly 10 years ago -- May 10, 1970 -- the day the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 29 years.
The then-37-year-old coach decided to move on to private business still savoring the Cup win. In 1972 he came out of retirement briefly to coach Team Canada against the Soviets. Again he was a winner; the Canadians staged a dramatic comeback in Moscow to win the series with four victories, three losses, and one tie.
But why did a man who once said he doubted he would ever coach again return behind the bech? "It was probably a lot easier for me to come in and do this than it would have been for anyone else," he says. Sinden knew the team, knew the players -- and knew that the Bruins, despite their high standing and fine season-long record, were not playing well enough at this state to make a serious run for the Stanley Cup.
Coaches Tom Johnson and Bep Guidolin, both of whom had winning records, had previously been removed by Sinden, although Johnson stayed on as assistant general manager. In 1975 Harry shocked Boston fans when he traded high-scoring Phil Esposito, a key member of the 1970 and 1972 Stanley Cup winners, to the arch-rival New York Rangers. More recently he had feuded with Don Cherry, eventually almost forcing the popular and highly successful coach to move on by refusing to give him the long-term contract he was able to get elsewhere.
Axing Creighton, even though the team had the fourth best record in the 21 -team NHL, was another gutsy move. But beneath the 40-20-13 win-loss-tie mark, Sinden saw a team that had lost its momentum and was not, in his mind, ready for the playoffs.
Sinden reported mumblings from players who found it hard to adjust to the coaching style of Creighton, an "outsider" who was not a part of the long Bruins tradition. A winning coach at every level of hockey, from the minors to a four-year stint with the NHL's Atlanta Flames, Creighton was not the emotional leader Sinden wanted. The contrast with his feiry predecessor, Cherry, only accentuated his low-key style.
"We felt something had to be done to change the direction of the club," Sinden explained. "The blame should not be heaped on the coach. At this stage of the season, however, we felt we had no other choice.
"The team was really going nowhere, with no prospect of improving. We traced a lot of it to the attitude of the players. . . ."
"We felt, after some deliberation, that our team hasn't played well in areas where it has traditonally been strong -- body contact, forechecking, team play. . . ."
"The thing that worried me most was that the players felt they were going nowhere. That means you've got a defeatist attitude on your team -- and that's dynamite. . . .
"I hoped the situation would go away. I wanted Fred to be coach of the Bruins."
Sinden says he has "no illusions" about remaining as coach after the playoffs are over. The team's immediate goal, he says, will be to overtake Buffalo and Montreal for second place in the overall standings.
But even more than that, Sinden wants his team to return to the aggressive style of play that he feels brings out the best in them. "Hockey is a game of checking and a game of emotion," he says. "If you don't check, you don't win. You only play as well as the other team lets you, and it's a direct relation to checking."
The new coach clearly has the emotion needed to inspire his club. In January , in an action he later regretted, Sinden criticized league president John Ziegler for fining and suspending three of his players. He was fined $2,500 -- by Bruins president Paul Mooney.
The 1980 Bruins, who welcomed Sinden to his second go-around as coach with victories over Atlanta and Philadelphia, have only five players remaining from his 1970 championship squad. And Sinden says he's noticed other changes. "I was surprised at the pace of the game at ice level," he says. "I'd lost my perspective sitting up so high."
Also, "They've raised the [coach's] platform. Now I can see over the players!"