For Colin Campbell, going from Mike Keenan’s top assistant to head coach of the New York Rangers wasn’t a big move.
“I just had to move 10 feet to another office,” Campbell said.
Logistically it was simple, but in every other way it was an almost-impossible task. Campbell took over the Rangers after they ended a 54-year drought and paraded the Stanley Cup down Broadway because Keenan left in a contract dispute.
It’s a similar situation to the one Todd Reirden is walking into after the Washington Capitals promoted him from associate to head coach to replace Barry Trotz mere weeks after winning the Cup. Reirden is just the fourth new coach in the past 30 years to assume control of a Stanley Cup champion, a unique opportunity that presents problems Campbell, Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis know well from their experiences.
Lewis succeeded Bowman after being his associate coach with the champion 2002 Detroit Red Wings, and Bowman stepped in for “Badger” Bob Johnson after he led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Cup in 1991 and had to take a leave of absence to fight cancer. All three had to balance the opportunity of taking over with the expectation of following a Cup-winning coach and the ensuing pressure.
“Besides replacing a legend, to be equal, you have to win the Stanley Cup, so it was a big challenge,” Lewis said. “I was looking forward to the challenge, actually, of taking over a team, taking over a team that won a Stanley Cup and try to accomplish the same thing. I knew it would be very difficult.”
Or as Campbell pointed out: “You can only tie. You can’t do better. Tying’s pretty good. You have to win a Cup just tie your performance from a year before.”
No pressure, Todd.
Only Bowman — who already had five Cup rings from the Montreal Canadiens’ 1970s dynasty — pulled it off and repeated. And even that was a different set of circumstances because as director of player development, Bowman only agreed to coach the Penguins until Johnson was able to resume coaching or succumbed to cancer.
“We wanted to have him keep fighting for his life,” Bowman said. “When he passed away, we had not had a great start that second year. We had the Stanley Cup hangover, and the people that ran the team — the owners and that — they didn’t feel it was a good idea to put a guy in in November, early December. I only agreed to do it until one of those two things happened. But then when he passed away, they didn’t think it was easy for a young guy to come in that didn’t know the team. So I said, ‘OK I’ll finish the season.’
Reirden is far more like Campbell and Lewis in that he was Trotz’s top assistant and the de-facto candidate to step in when change happened. Campbell and Lewis had plenty of experience and were familiar with players like Reirden, but neither had been an NHL head coach before and had to learn on the fly.
“Being an assistant coach, you communicate differently, you just organize things differently,” Lewis said. “You can’t do is you can’t change your personality. The players know you as an assistant coach. They know you as a human being and how you react to things at an assistant level. So I guess the biggest adjustment is how to react to things as a head coach. … When you’re a head coach, everything falls on your shoulders.”
For some, that’s a natural fit. Bowman stepped right into the NHL with the expansion St. Louis Blues in 1967-68 and led them to the Cup Final three consecutive years.
Nine rings later, it’s clear the legendary Bowman just had a knack for this thing that helped him win with three different teams.
“When you’re an assistant coach, the thing is you’ve got to put your foot down right from the start,” Bowman said. “You’re no longer an assistant coach.”
That’s just the beginning of the advice for Reirden, who at 47 has coached in the American Hockey League and spent eight years behind the bench as an assistant with Pittsburgh and Washington. When Trotz resigned and joined the New York Islanders, Reirden was the only candidate to be the Capitals’ coach — and now it’s his time to figure it out.
“It’s a challenge,” Lewis said. “There’s no easy head-coaching jobs in the National hockey League. He knows the team. He’s been with them when they’ve been successful. He’s been with them when they’ve stumbled and had some failures. Just be yourself is my only advice that I can give.”
Campbell waited out a half-season lockout in 1994-95 and so badly wanted to win his head-coaching debut on banner-raising night — when he only found out after warmups captain Mark Messier would be in the lineup. Knowing a thing about pressure under the New York spotlight, Campbell hopes Reirden doesn’t pile up too much of it on himself.
“There would be pressure on Barry if he came back,” Campbell said. “Don’t try to be like Barry. They were a goalpost from being down 3-0. They’re a good team, a deep team, but it’s tough to win the Cup. He knows that team, he knows those players. He doesn’t have to change anything. But he’s got to be Todd, not Barry or anybody else. He’s been around long enough. Just don’t put undue pressure on yourself, that’s all, because it’s tough.”