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Fish And Hockey Coaches Quickly Start To Stink

Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith (back R) reacts during the NHL Global Series Ice Hockey match between Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators in Stockholm on November 16, 2023. (Photo by Henrik MONTGOMERY / TT NEWS AGENCY / AFP) / Sweden OUT (Photo by HENRIK MONTGOMERY/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images)
Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

When D.J. Smith got earholed Monday by the Ottawa Senators, the sense of surprise was noticeable in that it was nowhere in evidence. The Sens, who have betrayed their fans’ optimism with remarkable consistency for the past seven years, were dead last in the Eastern Conference despite a benign goal difference of minus-1, and were showing no signs of ameliorating their fate. They had gone 3-8 since an early-season trip to Stockholm to show their skimpy wares to another hockey-playing nation, and though they won their two Scandinavian games in overtime and a shootout, they have been persistently undressed since.

But that's not all, or even most. The Senators are now owned by Michael Andlauer, and his first experience after paying the daughters of former owner Eugene Melnyk for the privilege of getting to talk to Gary Bettman whenever he wants was to learn that he was being docked a first-round draft choice because his general manager Pierre Dorion tried to pull a fast one in the club's trade of Evgenii Dadonov two years ago. Andlauer fired Dorion for being a weasel and ripped the league for what he thought was its decision to hold off on the punishment until his purchase of the team was completed.

In other words, he's been in kind of a pissy mood ever since he bought the team, and its collapse since returning from Sweden hasn't helped. In fairness, neither Dorion nor Smith were his hires so he owed them nothing in terms of loyalty based on a longstanding relationship. It's just been him getting kicked in the danglies daily by the Rockettes, and he's just not in the mood these days, OK?

Then again, it also reveals something innate in hockey teams, at least ones on this continent: that they like to fire their coaches in the middle of the season more than anyone else. Smith follows Craig Berube (Blues), Dean Evason (Wild) and Jay Woodcroft (Oilers) down the laundry chute since the season started, and the fact that none of them saw 30 games before the pink slip is entirely normal. Indeed, when Evason got his summons to the executioner, he simply asked general manager Bill Guerin, "Am I getting fired?" Guerin said, "Yeah," and then they hugged. The source for this is Evason, so while it may seem weird to us, it wasn't to him. There's always a grenade in the back of the in-box, and you never know when it's going to explode—only that it is.

Why this is so ingrained as a hockey thing is hard to say, though a lot of it is that hockey is largely a game based on persistence, and getting the players to keep chasing the puck and taking and giving hits and getting in the odd show fight and getting in front of slap shots that crater their faces, all for the good of the firm—and that requires a belief in the person telling you to do all this mad nonsense, and that belief is not everlasting. On average that magic ends after about two and a half years and a new boss comes in to deliver the same old lines a new way.

Most coaches whose eyes get covered with black electrical tape in the team photo do so not because their theories are unsound or that they are despicable by nature (although as in every walk of life there is a margin for error here), but that the players started finding their charms resistible. In Smith's case, a new owner happened. In Berube's, he'd stayed twice as long as the average coach gets. In Woodcroft's, Connor McDavid is still looking at other people play for the Cup, and people are starting to notice that he is turning into Mike Trout. In Evason's, well, at least he got a hug.

But there is one other factor that has made this a regular thing in the NHL—42 times in the last decade—and that is the fact that three recent midseason coaching changes resulted in Stanley Cups. The Kings got theirs in 2012 when Terry Murray was turned into kindly old Darryl Sutter before he turned into cranky old Darryl Sutter, the Penguins won in 2016 when Mike Johnston was croaked for Mike Sullivan, and Berube won the Cup in 2018 for St. Louis after replacing Mike Yeo. None of the guys who got fired were bad coaches and none of their replacements were brilliant innovators. They were just different guys mostly saying the same stuff as their predecessors, and every time a new coach is fired in December, the fever dream is that the hiring will result in a parade just on random chance.

As a comparison, the NBA has only had 20 in-season de-coachings in the last decade, and only one of them got the desired result—Tyronn Lue in Cleveland in 2016, although he is credited for that championship only in passing after LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Draymond Green. Smoking the coach is just not an NBA thing, nor is it an NFL thing except in Carolina, where David Tepper, who has three in-season firings in four years, is challenging Mark Davis for dimmest bulb in the chandelier. 

No, this is a hockey thing, and D.J. Smith is one of a thousand "respected in the room" guys who just stayed too long at the fair. Nothing says goodbye quite like saying hello to a new boss, and unless Jacques Martin, a spectacularly retreaded tire of a man making his fifth stop and second in Ottawa, gets the Senators to the Cup final, we can probably expect a still-fuming Andlauer to can him at year's end and hire local hero Daniel Alfredsson, just so the citizens won't pelt his limo with produce and bobbleheads as he leaves the arena after another agonizingly close 7-2 loss. After all, having money means you get to delegate blame, and that's why there are hockey coaches: to catch it, usually around Christmas.

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