Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Boss of New York

During hockey's Original Six era, there was little doubt as to who the boss was on each team. In Toronto, the power was controlled by one individual, Punch Imlach. In his capacity as Coach and General Manager, Imlach's domineering personality was felt throughout the organization.

Phil Watson filled this role with the New York Rangers. Watson, a former NHL player, coached the Rangers from 1955-56 to 1959-60. This was followed by a brief stint behind the bench of the Boston Bruins.

November 1955
As indicated in the headline above, Watson's rein of terror started early in his assignment as an NHL coach. Leading up to a game against the Boston Bruins, Watson had criticized several of his players in the press. A month prior, he had gone after his starting goaltender, Lorne "Gump" Worsley, in the media. Dean Prentice and Danny Lewicki were Watson's targets going into the contest at Madison Square Garden against Boston. All 3 players were accused of participating in what Watson termed "indifferent play". Trying to impress their new coach, all 3 responded with stellar performances in the Rangers 4-0 victory over the Bruins. Prentice netted 2 goals, Lewicki a single tally, and the Gumper posted the shutout.

In going public with his condemnation, Watson set a pattern that would continue for the duration of his time in New York.

A major explosion took place following a game in mid-February of 1959. The Rangers surrendered a 1-0 lead in the third period, to fall 5-1 to the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs scoring rampage included 3 goals in 4 minutes.

February 1959

Indeed, Worsley was the only player to escape the carnage of hurricane Watson when it touched down. At games end, the New York players made their way to the team dressing room. Their post game rituals would be unceremoniously interrupted. Watson marched his team right back on the ice and conducted a punishing 43 minute practice. Watson's train of thought concerning this peculiar maneuver was recorded by the press.

"I feel that some of my veteran players are taking extra beer...that extra piece of pastry...they're not in condition. That's why we're getting beat in the third period...a few weeks ago I caught some of my veteran players coming in at 1:30 in the morning...I warned them to make sure they got to bed by 11:30 or be fined."

February 1959

  As for Gump Worsley, looking back on the awkward situation of being the only player excused, he had tremendous sympathy for what his teammates were going through.
"I watched him put my teammates through drill after drill for at least an hour. What a bastard. It was painful to watch, punishment like I'd never seen before."
The Rangers followed the debacle against Montreal with a loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

February 1959
  This time, Watson unloaded a seething verbal attack on rookie Eddie Shack.

"It was not a case of lacking condition. it was a case of one man failing to do his job defensively on the winning goal and that man was Shack...When I scouted Shack as a Junior I thought he was going to be a world beater. But I was so dazzled by the way he carried that puck and barged through Junior defences that I forgot to check his defensive work. What a horrible mistake I made."

Writing in his autobiography - Clear The Track : Here Comes Shack - Eddie "The Entertainer" Shack reminisced about those who coached him in pro hockey.

"Coaches. They try to come off as smart, but they're the dumbest bastards goin', bar none. But I liked Imlach...I liked Eddie Shore too...I hated Phil Watson. Didn't like Hal Laycoe , either." 

It tells you something when Shack preferred Imlach and Shore over Phil Watson.

Going into his final season, it was evident Watson had no intention of altering his coaching philosophy. In particular his method of throwing his players under the bus when chatting to reporters. Following an early November 1959 defeat to the Leafs, Watson's quotes were printed in the sports section.

"I'm sick and tired of this club...that game stunk and it was my brightest stars who were the stinkiest. They'd better wake up because this stuff isn't going to go on...injuries are poor excuses...if one of our guys gets a hangnail, he goes to the doctor."

In New York, late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was acknowledged as being "The Boss". Under his direction the franchise would win multiple World Series Championships. Unlike his baseball counterpart, Phil Watson compiled a feeble record of 135 wins in 379 regular season games coaching in New York and Boston. In the playoffs his teams managed a meager 4 victories in 16 games.

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