May 6, 2010 in Sports

No sense in putting roots down if you coach the Chiefs

By The Spokesman-Review
 

It says something that Spokane goes through hockey coaches at a more rapid clip than it changes mayors.

The next guy behind the bench of the Spokane Chiefs will be the fifth in 10 years. The good news for potential applicants is that if they procrastinate in getting their resumés updated, general manager Tim Speltz will reopen the job about the time they finally get around to it.

This is not to make light of the de facto firing this week of Hardy Sauter, the first former Chiefs player to take on the job and a good and devoted soldier who won 90 games in two years. It’s a divorce that could not have gone down easily for either party – even as it was the right thing to do.

But it is another head-shaking commentary on hockey’s transitory culture, in which players leave home at 14 to begin their journey to the NHL – or the loop back to the prairie farm – and teenagers get traded like pork bellies, and signing up for direct deposit is as close as a coach gets to putting down roots.

As for the firing itself, Speltz couched it as a look to the future rather than a reaction to “our didn’t dos.”

“We’re at the start of another cycle, which can be very exciting in junior hockey,” he said, “to watch a group develop and mature together. And we’re looking for a guy who can teach, mentor and develop a younger group of players.”

By the way, the literal translation for “another cycle” is “fifth place here we come.”

But in trying to explain why Sauter wasn’t the right nursemaid for this next cycle, all Speltz could do was cite the obvious playoff swoons of the past two seasons – the adjustments that didn’t get made and in particular the failure to leverage the home-ice hammer even once last month against Portland. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that it’s risky to entrust the indoctrination of youngsters to a coach that didn’t get the best out of established players, so let’s just call Sauter’s original promotion what it was.

A mistake.

Yes, that’s easy enough to say in hindsight, but there were doubts even at the time. The Chiefs were fresh off winning the Memorial Cup when coach Bill Peters quite appropriately lunged at his chance to coach in the pros. Speltz didn’t want to upset that particular momentum. But in motivating, disciplining and strategizing for teenagers with a shiny ring and a notion they have little left to prove in juniors, who’s going to have more cachet and a stronger voice? The assistant who’s never been a head coach at this level? A former WHL head coach? Someone from the pros?

That the change happened three weeks before training camp drained the candidate pool some. But while Speltz insists that he’s “not afraid” to hire a coach with pro experience – and he did a decade ago with Perry Ganchar – his reluctance does show.

“A few years back we had a chance to hire Paul MacLean, who’s now an assistant coach with the (Detroit) Red Wings,” he said. “I talked to Don Hay who told me if he got the Calgary Flames job, he was taking Paul with him. So we could have hired him in June and have Don take him in July. Well, it didn’t work out for Paul that time, but the next year he’s in the NHL.

“Everything has to be a fit. Some teams have had real good runs with ex-NHL coaches, but typically those guys have one thing on their minds.”

Sure. On the other hand, Hardy Sauter is done after two years, too.

And that’s the unsettling part – none of the last four Chiefs coaches has lasted beyond three seasons. Three times that was the organization’s call – a pretty significant “oops” percentage. That’s not drastically above the league’s turnover average for the last decade, but it is among the franchises that have won Memorial Cups or WHL titles in that time. And you wonder if the best candidates out there are giving the Chiefs due consideration, or if things like money or a voice in the organization become issues.

“You like to think you can always find the next Mike Babcock or Bill Peters,” Speltz said. “One thing when you start a new cycle like this, you’d like to ensure that the coach is going to be there three or four years for you, but you can’t control their opportunities. Like it or not, it’s a developmental league for coaches, too.”

And a disposable league, for better or worse.


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