Catching up with the St. John’s Maple Leafs’ first bench boss

Brendan McCarthy
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He’s a Stanley Cup-winning coach, the youngest winner of the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s top bench boss, guided Canada’s Olympic hockey team in 1998 and is the third-youngest coach in NHL history — after Scotty Bowman and Glen Sather — to reach 400 wins.

But for all of that, whenever Marc Crawford encounters Newfoundlanders in his travels, he says all they seem to want to talk about is the early years of the AHL’s St. John’s Maple Leafs.

“It’s always about those first teams, the players and the games, how close we came to winning it all that first year,” said Crawford, who was the first-ever coach of the AHL Leafs and guided the team to the AHL’s Calder Cup final in 1991-92, its inaugural season, only to lose the Adirondack Red Wings in seven games.

“It’s easy to see those teams hold a special place in the hearts of people there. They remember the good times and bad times, but mostly the good.”

Crawford spent three successful seasons in St. John’s, winning the AHL’s top coach’s award in 1993, and coaching his teams to the playoffs each time, but what he recalls the most are things that didn’t happen on the ice.

“Of course I remember them, like the blackout (playoff) game against the Cape Breton Oilers, but what do I remember the most? I remember my daughter being born at the Grace Hospital, my son taking his first steps in the hallway at the Holiday Inn. I remember being stranded on George Street in a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve. I remember Bob Cole coming down to the coach’s office and smoking cigarettes, which I thought was pretty cool. I remember that first year when some of the great Toronto players of the past — like George Armstrong, Johnny Bower, Dick Duff and Floyd Smith — would visit St. John’s or be around our team in some capacity. For a kid from Cornwall, Ont., who grew up worshipping the Leafs, that was something.

“And I remember the people ... never will forget them, or how great they were.”

In 1994, Crawford was hired by the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques and was named the league’s top coach in his first year. Two years later, after the Nordiques had transferred to Colorado and became the Avalanche, he led the Avs to the Stanley Cup.

In all, Crawford has coached for 15 seasons in the NHL, including a six-and-a-half year stay in Vancouver, where he became the Canucks’ all-time winningest coach. After Vancouver, he spent two years in both Los Angeles and Dallas, before being let go by the Stars at the end of last season.

Crawford, who turned 50 earlier this year, is in St. John’s this weekend as an honoured guest of the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps for the teams first-ever home games.

He’s not shocked at the AHL’s re-emergence in Newfoundland.

“Nobody needed to sell me on what a good hockey market St. John’s is ... I found that out first-hand,” said Crawford, “plus when the AHL expanded to Abbotsford, B,C., there wasn’t any reason it shouldn’t be in Newfoundland again.

“But the big thing is who is involved: Danny Williams, Glenn Stanford, plus Mark Chipman, Zinger (Craig Heisinger) and the people with the Winnipeg Jets. That’s a winning team before a skate ever hits the ice.”

These days, Crawford is working as an analyst for TSN hockey broadcasts. It’s the kind of position that has allowed many former NHL coaches — Paul Maurice, John Tortorella and Craig MacTavish, for example — to stay close to the game before finding their way back behind the bench of a pro team.

“It certainly is a way to stay involved, but it’s also extremely interesting,” said Crawford. “I’m committed to watch hockey to keep up on things and I find I’m focusing on the whole team, paying attention to third- and fourth-line players and fifth and sixth defencemen and the contributions they make.

“And I was never afraid of doing it. I guess coming from a large family, I was always looking for attention.

“The big things is that I’m learning something new ever day. As with almost everything, it’s a matter of doing it over and over. It’s all about the reps.

“I figure after another 4,000 reps or so, I might be good at it,” he added with a laugh.

 

bmcc@thetelegram.com

Twitter@telybrendan

Organizations: NHL, Maple Leafs, AHL Leafs Adirondack Red Wings Grace Hospital Holiday Inn Avalanche Canucks Winnipeg Jets

Geographic location: Canada, Vancouver, George Street Newfoundland Toronto Cornwall Colorado Los Angeles Dallas Abbotsford

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