The Playing Careers of the Top 5 NHL Coaching Legends of All Time
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The Playing Careers of the Top 5 NHL Coaching Legends of All Time

What did the top 5 NHL head coaches of all-time do before they got their starts behind the bench? They played hockey!

In the history of the National Hockey League, the top five coaches when it comes to total games coached are the same top five when it comes to total wins for a coach and total losses for a coach. The order switches around but the same five legends of the game dominate each of these categories.

How did these greats learn the game? They all played hockey at varying levels and with varying career lengths. Three of the five are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame under the builder’s category. It is inevitable that the other two will someday end up there.

Scotty Bowman leads in all three categories. Bowman played just three years of junior hockey with the Montreal Junior Canadiens from 1951-52 to 1953-54. He got his start as an NHL head coach with the expansion St. Louis Blues in 1967-68. He took the fledgling club to the Stanley Cup finals in their first three years in the league. Despite nine Stanley Cups and four unsuccessful visits to the finals over a coaching career that spanned from 1967 to 2002, Bowman was only twice awarded the Jack Adams Award for NHL Coach of the Year. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991.

Al Arbour took over for Scotty Bowman as head coach of the St. Louis Blues in 1970-71 when Bowman shifted to the Montreal Canadiens. This would launch a twenty-two year NHL coaching career that would see Arbour build up the expansion New York Islanders from scratch and win four consecutive Stanley Cups with the club in the early 1980’s. Despite his success, Arbour was awarded the Jack Adams just once, the year before he brought the Stanley Cup to Long Island. Arbour is second in all three categories. He entered The Hall in 1996.

Arbour’s NHL playing career consisted of 626 regular season games and 86 more in the playoffs from 1953-54 to 1970-71. In his first year in the NHL, he won a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings. Throughout his career, Al also played with Chicago, Toronto and finally, St. Louis. He was awarded the Eddie Shore Award in 1964-65 as the American Hockey League’s top defenseman while playing for the Rochester Americans.

Dick Irvin Sr. played three years of NHL hockey in the very early days of the NHL. Irvin played for the Chicago Black Hawks from 1926-27 to 1928-29 and became the team’s head coach during his final season. His coaching career spanned from 1928 to 1956 and took him to Chicago, Toronto and Montreal. His teams won the Stanley Cup on four occasions and were losers in the finals twelve times. Dick was posthumously called to The Hall in 1958. Irvin is third in all time games coached and total wins. He falls to fifth in total career losses.

Pat Quinn played NHL hockey from 1968-69 to 1976-77 in a career that was cut short due to injury. Pat played a total of 606 regular season games, as well as, eleven in the playoffs. He began his playing career in 1968-69 with the Toronto Maple Leafs and after a stop in Vancouver with the Canucks, he finished out his career with the Atlanta Flames.

During the 1978-79 season, Quinn took over as the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. Pat would go on to coach the Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs before finishing off with the Edmonton Oilers in 2009-10. Pat has no Stanley Cups to his name but he won the Jack Adams Award twice as NHL Coach of the Year. Quinn is fourth in games and wins and fifth in losses.

Mike Keenan’s playing career is not nearly as legendary as his coaching career. ‘Iron Mike’ played some university hockey in both the United States and Canada and some Senior ‘A’ hockey in Canada. Keenan began his NHL coaching career in 1984-85 with the Philadelphia Flyers and finished up with the Calgary Flames in 2008-09. Along the way, he also coached the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers. Keenan won a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1993-94 and went to the finals twice with the Flyers and once with the Blackhawks. He won the Jack Adams just once over his career. Mike is fifth in games and wins and third in losses.

Are these five safe in their top five positions? Fairly safe, yes, but there are a few still active coaches that are moving up behind. Are these five finished with their coaching careers? Dick Irvin Sr. died in 1957. Other than him, all four have the potential to return to the game. Arbour and Bowman are most likely not to return to the bench but don’t count out Quinn and Keenan just yet.


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Comments (2)

We do not have hockey here. I only see them in movies, sports channel and I love watching it. Great to know about hockey Tom, now I am becoming a fan, thank you so much.

Residing only 40 miles from St. Louis, we all know Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour in the history of St. Louis Blues hockey in this area. Good stats on the coaches. On an aside, I'm glad hockey hasn't been hit with the same type of steroid use scandal that has rocked professional baseball.