32 years later, an AHL rookie again

by Justin Skelnik || AHL On The Beat Archive

It was 1979 when Chicago Wolves head coach Craig MacTavish, a 21-year-old center, broke into professional hockey with the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Dusters. Over the next three years, he would shuttle back and forth between the AHL and the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins.

During the 1982-83 season, he became a full-time NHL player and never saw the AHL again throughout the rest of his 17-year playing career or 11-year coaching career.

Until now.

The 53-year-old MacTavish was named the eighth head coach in Wolves history on Aug. 1, 2011. Before he was a coach with 301 career NHL wins to his credit, he was a ninth-round draft pick of the Bruins who managed quite the successful playing career.

He skated in 1,093 NHL games and despite recording 213 goals and 480 points, he never filled the role as a top-line guy; he was a self-professed third-line energy guy. He was leaned heavily on his ability to kill penalties, win faceoffs and chip in a little offensively everywhere he played.

He was a member of four Stanley Cup championship teams, three with the Edmonton Oilers (1987, 1988, 1990) and one with the New York Rangers (1994), and is part of an elite group of players that have won four or more Stanley Cups as a player.

“I think the first championship you win is special and most impactful because you know you have won one,” MacTavish said. “All four Cups were so difficult to win. They all have a very similar feeling in that regard. The one in 1990 was sweet as well. It was a little more unexpected. Wayne Gretzky had left the team and we weren’t a favorite to win. The first two, we were the prohibitive favorite to win going into the season. So to win when we weren’t expected to was a pretty special feeling.”

Despite winning four Stanley Cups, MacTavish may be better known for something else he did during his playing days. He was the last player in NHL history to play without a helmet. That distinction could have gone to someone else had he not broken into the NHL with Boston.

“I came into the league wearing a helmet,” MacTavish said. “I started my career with the Bruins in 1979 and they had a veteran-laden team. Very few guys on the team wore a helmet at that time, so I just took it off for whatever reason.”

MacTavish would not wear a helmet the rest of his career with the Bruins. When he signed with Edmonton in 1985, he put a helmet back on, but disposed of it after one day and never wore a helmet again. Toward the end of MacTavish’s career, he became a focal point in the discussion of who would be last to play without a helmet.

“I always knew that I could be one of the more likely guys to last wear a helmet,” MacTavish said. “You had to sign a pro contract before June 1, 1979, in order to play without a helmet and that coincided with my first year, so I was grandfathered in. It was something I thought about as my career was winding down and for me to hold that feat is pretty neat and something I will always be remembered for.”

The greatest recognition MacTavish ever received due to this accomplishment happened in the form of the television game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”.

“Back when that show debuted and was super popular, I was one of the questions,” MacTavish said. “The question was something like ‘What was Craig MacTavish known for?’ The guy burned a couple lifelines, but he did end up getting the question correct. I got a lot of notoriety from that, because so many people watched that show.”

About the same time “Millionaire” was beginning to dominate television ratings, MacTavish was starting his career as a head coach. After retiring at the conclusion of the 1997-98 campaign, he immediately jumped into coaching and spent the next three seasons as an assistant coach with the Rangers and Oilers. On June 22, 2000, he was named Edmonton’s head coach, a position that he would hold for eight seasons.

“I kind of always knew I would get into coaching as my playing career was winding down,” MacTavish said. “The last few years I played in Edmonton, I had a coaching component in my contract so that gave me a good advantage in regards to getting an early start at learning how to coach. The last couple years of my career I played for three different coaches. I took that opportunity to listen and pay attention to different philosophies of the game.”

MacTavish led the Oilers to the postseason in two of his first four years as head coach. Then in 2006, the year after the NHL lockout, he took an eighth-seeded Edmonton team to within one game of winning the Stanley Cup.

“That postseason run was the single best experience I have had in coaching, maybe the best experience I have had in hockey,” MacTavish said. “We had a real good group of coaches and our team just came together during the playoffs. That was just a highly enjoyable experience.”

Following their Stanley Cup Finals run, the Oilers would fail to make the playoffs the next three seasons. Then, in April 2009, MacTavish resigned as Edmonton’s bench boss. For the first time since turning pro, he found himself outside the game of hockey, but he always knew he would be back.

After departing the Oilers organization, MacTavish used his time away to earn a master’s degree in business from Queen’s University and spent two years as an analyst for the NHL on TSN. Both ventures were enjoyable but he never lost the itch to coach.

“When I left the game, I needed a break,” MacTavish said. “I didn’t think it would take two years to get back. The first year, I wasn’t actively looking for another job. I probably would have taken one if offered, but one didn’t present itself. Last summer I was actively looking and ended up with the Wolves.”

Even though he has never coached in the AHL, the Wolves job was intriguing to him once it opened up.

“The chance to win here is very appealing,” MacTavish said. “I have never won a championship as a coach. Chicago has some pretty significant advantages in the organization and the ownership is unparalleled at this level. I want to leverage those advantages into another championship for the organization and win a Calder Cup.”

Even with his NHL coaching career to lean on, MacTavish still enters the 2011-12 campaign as a rookie AHL coach. He has admitted that there will be a learning curve but nothing he can’t handle.

“I think there is an adjustment period every year you coach, no matter what the level,” he said. “You are always trying to evolve and build a better mousetrap and hit a different vein in how you connect with people and players. You learn a lot of lessons along the way.

“In this business you are often defined by your shortcomings and your failures. Those failures are really what give you the opportunity to develop as a coach and I feel that way coming in here. I have a pretty good idea of what the job is going to call for. I am sure I’ll be surprised, but right now I have a pretty good idea of what I need to do to have some success here.”

The opportunity to win this season with the Wolves may be what pushed MacTavish to the job, but after consulting other coaches, there is another thing that has him eager to be practicing his trade
in the AHL.

“For me, I am looking forward to teaching the game and trying to help these guys get to the next level,” he said. “I have talked with other coaches in the NHL, who also coached in the AHL, and they all have stated to me how enjoyable the experience is.

“Our mandate is, personal development and championship hockey. I am really looking forward to doing that in a constructive and positive environment here with the Wolves.”