Its often the way a former great or even a mid level player will try and continue to work hand-in-hand with the game he still loves. Sometimes even a career minor league player can have a memorable and solid run at the top once he trades his stick and skates for a suit and tie, or a million suit and ties in the case of Don Cherry. Coaching can be a glorious career prolonger for those who can extend their careers from the ice onto the bench.
Becoming a coach can also be a dead end attempt at staying in the game that is not suited for all who have made the switch from player to teacher. There’s also no assurance that a life long lover and teacher of the game can always succeed on its highest stage of competition. We have seen plenty of lifelong coaches earn an opportunity to ply their trade in the NHL after years of toiling through the lower levels of hockey. Yet, once at the top success is no guarantee and opportunities are often few and far between.
The best coaches in NHL history have been endurance runners, the one’s who seemed to breed and ooze success out of their very veins and molded teams that felt like they were battalions led by generals. Scotty Bowman was a legend that I had the pleasure of watching when i was growing up, but today is not their day to shine in the sun. Unfortunately this is a plateau for the worst coaches. Those who have been burnouts, who couldn’t buy a win and couldn’t keep their jobs. These are the men who we shed some light on today.
15. Paul Holmgren – .432 (Win %)
Three full losing seasons and was fired in the midst of his 4th with Philadelphia from 1988-89 through 1991-92. The former Flyer player did make the playoffs with a .500 record and even had a run to the conference finals in his first season, but after that he had 2 non-playoff years and was then fired in the third losing season. The following season with Hartford he missed the playoffs with an awful record and was therefore moved from the coach to general manager role the next season early amidst an awful start. The next season he took over as coach midway through and had another bad, non-playoff season. Then the following year has finally let go for good, fired early in the middle of another poor start.
Another former player who returned to coach an old club of his. Savard returned to the Nordiques whom he finished his career with during the late 70’s and early 80’s to coach during the 1987-88 season. Savard went 32-43-5 which saw the Nordiques seven year playoff run come to an abrupt halt. This was enough of a failure to see Savard not last past his first and only season at the helm of the club.
13. Rick Kehoe – .419
One of the former player turned coaches, Kehoe ended up playing most of his career and the majority until he retired with Pittsburgh. Then in 2001-02 he took over a Penguins team that had started to return itself to prominence the past few seasons. What took place was a fall back to mediocrity, as Kehoe recorded a 28-37-8-5 record his first season and followed up that bad finish with a worse season the next going 27-44-6-5. It will be pointed out he took over that first season just four games into the year because of the previous coach Ivan Hlinka’s rocky relations with Mario Lemieux the captain and team president over the off-season. So Kehoe was a little thrust in, but it was not a good display from the former player turned coach. He was fired at the conclusion of his second unsuccessful season at the helm and has not had a head coaching job or any other in the NHL since.
12. Mike Murphy – .404
After a playing career spanning 12 years in the NHL, Murphy having spent the last 9 and a half with the L.A. Kings became a part of their staff. A few years after joining as an assistant he was named interim head coach, replacing Pat Quinn for the final 38 games of the 1986-87 season. His 13-21-4 record still resulted in a 1st round appearance, but also an exit in 5 games. The next season he began as the head coach full-time for L.A., but that lasted all of 27 games with just 7 wins. It took nearly a decade for Murphy to once again receive a full-time head coaching position again, he did so with his hometown Maple Leafs and faired no better. in 2 years with the Leafs he had almost identical records of 30-44-8 and 30-43-9, and missed the playoffs both years resulting in his dismissal, and since then has retired from the game.
The former defenseman with the Blackhawks to start and end his career in the NHL, Yawney became an AHL coach and proved his worth to the Chicago organization enough so that he was brought in to become the head coach of the team for the 2005-06 season following the NHL lockout and had a rough start to his NHL coaching career pulling a 26-43-13 record missing the post-season by quite a margin. The following year, Yawney was on a short leash and didn’t last long going 7-12-2 and was promptly fired and has yet to earn another NHL head coaching position since.
10. George ‘Buck’ Boucher – .390
Better known for Buck, a nickname earned during his decade as a Senator in the 1920’s. A hard nose, gritty defenseman; after ending his career he went on to become a head coach for a few NHL teams. The Montreal Maroons, resulted in his first job and promptly a 12 game run of 6-5-1 before being fired and replaced almost as soon as he got started. Three years later with Ottawa, a 13-29-6 non-playoff record led to him once again receiving the quick guillotine. He then was given an opportunity the following year to take the reigns of the St. Louis Blues past the midpoint of the year. In just 35 games, he won only 9, collecting 24 points and finishing outside the playoffs again. Due to these failures he would have to wait 15 years to get another shot, it would come with the Bruins in 1949-50 and it would be his last. Buck would go out just like he did everywhere else, one and done with a 22-32-16 record in his one full year back at the helm, another non-playoff finish.
9. Barclay Plager – .368
Plager, another former player on the list, is another who spent the majority of his on ice career with one franchise, the St. Louis Blues during the late 60’s through mid 70’s and was also their captain. He was so well liked by the franchise he was given a player/head coach role as his career was winding down with their minor league CHL affiliate in Kansas City. The following year while doing the same with their affiliate now in Salt lake, he was asked to become the head coach of the NHL Blues with 26 games left in the 77-78 season. In his short run they went a mediocre 9-11-6 to miss out on the post-season, but Plager remained as head coach to begin the following year, and his first full would be the organization’s worst of all-time going 18-50-12. However, he remained the coach at the start of the following year for 24 games winning just seven before being relieved of his duties but being named an assistant coach in the process. Three years later he was again asked to take the reigns by the organization as an interim coach for a half a season, he got the Blues a post-season berth with an awful 15-21-12 record to finish with 65 points and 4th place in the Norris Division. They were promptly swept by Chicago and he was an assistant again by the next season, never to take the reigns again.
8. Ed Olczyk – .354
A gritty forward who had some terrific numbers early in his career, Olczyk is pretty respected in the hockey world. So after playing out the tail end of his career on a few teams, including Pittsburgh, the Penguins came calling with an opportunity after Ed had spent a few years off the ice. The job was to replace a man who already falls on our list of worst coaches, Rick Kehoe, who had taken a playoff worthy team and put them out of sorts. Olczyk’s job was to right the ship, in 2003-04 he did even worse than his predecessor going 23-47-8. Thanks to a lockout and getting a guy named Sidney Crosby, he kept his job until hockey resumed in 2005-06, but not for long. After an abysmal 8 wins in 31 games he was yanked and has since turned to broadcasting the NHL on NBC rather than trying his hand at any more coaching. I say good choice Ed.
7. Steve Ludzik – .345
After playing a hard nose game for a short lived career through the majority of the 80’s spent with mainly the Blackhawks, Ludzik retired from the game and moved right into trying his hand behind the bench. After showing some ability through the lower levels of hockey and the IHL or the affiliate of the NHL at the time, he was hired to be Tampa Bay’s coach to take them into the new millennium. Unfortunately he never really could get things straightened out with his team in Tampa Bay, even with a few young talented players at his disposal he produced two consecutive non-playoff years of 19-47-9-7 and 24-47-6-5. Enough for management to decide they wanted a new man taking them further into the new millennium and Ludzik was no longer to be at the helm and has yet to return to an NHL role as such since.
6. Fred Glover – .345
After a short NHL playing career and a long-spanning AHL career as a player-coach of the Cleveland Barons, Glover tried once again to make himself stick in the NHL. Unfortunately every year got progressively worse for Fred and his teams till he had finally run out of chances. It was actually a good start for Fred, albeit only a 29-36-11 record in 68-69’ with the Oakland Seals they made the playoffs, and next season he did the same again going 22-40-14 and again made the playoffs. Both years they were ousted in the 1st round, and the following season after the club moved homes, their luck ran dry with another losing year of 20-53-5 meaning no playoff this time and after a loss and two ties to begin the following year he was gone. He landed right on his feet though that same year in L.A. coaching the Kings for 68 games but to a tune of 18-42-8 that cost him his job after another bad season. Again the following year he was back behind the bench with the Seals a few weeks into the year as a replacement coach. His 14-39-13 record got them no post-season but once more he remained to begin the next year where a 11-38-8 record finally got him fired and his run in the NHL had come to a disastrous end.
After never making the NHL, the career minor league player, captain and then future head coach showed his passion for the game as one of the EHL’s all-time best and longest tenured players. However, after having success as a coach in the EHL the same NHL that never wanted his skills as a player came calling for him to step behind the bench and guide one of its clubs. That team was the Colorado Rockies, the year was 1977 and Kelly was definitely not the man for the job. A 19-40-21 record was followed with a second year start of 3-14-4 and Kelly’s time in the NHL was done, just like that he had a shot and it was over in the blink of an eye.
4. Mike Kitchen – .341
A former player, Kitchen’s playing days were never much to talk about, he was an average stay at home defenseman through the late 70’s early 80’s. Then, he turned himself into a very long tenured assistant coach through over a decade plus work on the Maple Leafs and Blues coaching staffs. In his 6th year with the Blues he was asked to become the interim head coach with 21 games remaining, he sported a 10-7-4 winning record. After the lockout year had finished in St. Louis, the organization had not forgotten about that small sample of success from Kitchen, so he remained the head coach for the 2005-06 season. Unfortunately, the new NHL was not his strength as shown by his 21-46-15 first full season, but the organization allowed him a chance at redemption, unfortunately Kitchen went 7-17-4 and was fired 28 games into the next campaign. He has since re-emerged on the assistant coaching scene and collected now 2 cups in the past 3 years with Chicago.
3. Curt Fraser – .312
After a solid NHL career as a winger, Fraser took his shot at coaching in order to prolong his connection with the game. Where it took him was back to the top with a shot as the first head coach in franchise history for the expansion Atlanta Thrashers come 1999-2000. It was a painful growing experience for all, his first year of just 14 wins can be forgiven for the reason they were simply a new team in every facet of the organization. However, in year two he collected only 23 wins and then fell to just 19 the next. So after starting his fourth season at the helm with just eight wins in the first 30 games he was finally fired and the opportunity had finally come to an end. As has Fraser’s coaching opportunities at the highest level, he has yet to return to the NHL since.
After never playing past OHA hockey, Dave Chambers came back to the game as a head coach in the NCAA in the early 70’s before a sudden move back to the NHL from OHA hockey after just one season. He became an assistant with the Minnesota North Stars in 1989-90 and the following year Quebec hired him to be their head coach. The surprise move only got worse when people expected there to be a lack of success and were met with just that, a 16-50-14 first year at the helm somehow had him around to start the 1991-92 year as coach. But after three wins in 18 games he was ousted and the nightmare experience for all involved had come to an end.
Officially the worst coach in terms of winning percentage in the history of hockey, Cooper Smeaton barely has any connection to the game, except for this unfortunate fact. He never played hockey at any recorded level, but he had a knowledge of the game considering he was the head of the officials department until he was named the head coach of the 1930-31 Philadelphia Quakers. Going from running the referee’s to running a team proved much harder than maybe Cooper imagined, as his lone season at the helm is the worst in hockey history; 4-36-4. Therefore earning Cooper our top spot on our list as the worst coach in NHL history.