The ’12 Days of Christmas’ is a classic holiday song first published in its current form in 1908. In a nod to the classic carol, join The Hockey Writers as we count down the 12 Days of Hockeymas. Each day, we will provide you with a piece of hockey history as we eagerly await the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.
Given that we are now 11 days from Christmas, we had to find something that related to 11 with the Calgary Flames. What I ended up discovering was that 11 happened to be the number of head coaches this team has had since 2000. Considering that was only 20 years ago, it shows how the Flames have had their fair share of struggles during this time. Thankfully, the team has been able to improve as of late, making the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.
Heading into the 2020-21 season, their roster looks quite impressive on paper, and they’re a team that almost everyone believes will make the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Assuming this happens, recently named head coach Geoff Ward, who served as the team’s interim head coach for the majority of the 2019-20 season, has a chance to stick around for a while. This is something the Flames haven’t experienced often with their head coaches in recent years. With all that said, here’s a trip down memory lane going over the 11 said head coaches over the last 20 years.
The shortest tenured head coach, aside from an interim listed further down the list, in the last 20 years for the Flames was Don Hay. Despite a tremendous coaching career in the WHL, which includes being the league’s winningest coach, the now 66-year-old struggled to make anywhere near as impressive of an impact at the NHL level. Hay’s career with the Flames actually began during the 1995-96 season, where he was an assistant to then-head coach Pierre Page.
His time as an assistant coach with the Flames ended after just one season, as the Phoenix Coyotes would name him as their head coach. Unfortunately, the new job didn’t go as planned, as the Coyotes fired him after just a season where he led the team to a 38-37-7-0 record. From there, Hay joined the Anaheim Ducks as an assistant for one season before heading back to the WHL and coaching the Tri City Americans for two seasons.
After the 1999-00 season, Hay came back to the NHL as the newly named head coach of the Flames. While his time with the Coyotes wasn’t what he had hoped, it was better than his tenure with the Flames, as he failed to make it through even one season, being relieved of his duties just 68 games in after a 23-28-13-4 start.
That turned out to be Hay’s last time behind an NHL bench. He went on to coach the Utah Grizzlies of the AHL for three seasons before returning to the WHL for the 2004-05 season. He has remained in the WHL since, working as the head coach for the Vancouver Giants until the 2014-15 season, where he then took over as the coach for the Kamloops Blazers. He remained with the Blazers until the end of the 2017-18 season and has since spent the last two years as an assistant with the Portland Winterhawks.
After the Flames fired Hay in March of 2001, they announced then-assistant coach Greg Gilbert as his replacement. Gilbert, who was in his first season behind an NHL bench, had spent the previous four seasons as the head coach for the Worcester IceCats of the AHL. Prior to that, he had enjoyed a successful playing career, which saw him suit up for 837 career NHL games and post 378 points.
After taking over for Hay, Gilbert finished the season with a record of just 4-8-2. While this wasn’t great by any stretch, it was much too short of a tenure to see what they had in Gilbert, and they chose to bring him back for the 2001-02 campaign. Unlike Hay, Gilbert was able to survive the entire season but failed to lead the team to the playoffs, with a record of 32-35-12-3. Despite failing to make the postseason that year, however, the Flames elected to bring Gilbert back yet again for the 2002-03 season.
Unfortunately for Gilbert, the team got off to a pathetic 6-13-3-3 start, which gave the Flames no choice but to fire him. That turned out to be his first and only shot behind an NHL bench, as he then went on to bounce around between the OHL and the AHL as a head coach before the Saginaw Spirit (OHL) fired him midway through the 2015-16 season. He has not coached since.
After the Flames fired Gilbert, they announced Al MacNeil as the interim head coach. He was by far and away the team’s shortest tenured head coach in the last 20 years, being in the position for just 11 games in which the team went 4-5-2. It was MacNeil’s first time coaching at all since the 1981-82 season, where ironically enough, he was the head coach of the Flames.
Despite the Flames replacing him in just a month’s time during the 2002-03 season, it wasn’t due to a poor showing. It was known all along that MacNeil was just a placeholder until Flames’ management was able to find the man they wanted to replace Gilbert.
As mentioned, MacNeil had previously coached the Flames, a role which he held for three seasons. His first year with the organization was the team’s last season in Atlanta, relocating to Calgary just a year later. He was able to lead them to the playoffs in each of his three seasons with the team, advancing to the third round once but failing to win a series the other two years. Aside from his very brief tenure in 2002, that was the last time he ever coached.
Prior to joining the Flames’ organization, MacNeil had spent plenty of time as a head coach for the Nova Scotia Voyageurs. He was also able to win a Stanley Cup during his only other season behind an NHL bench with the Montreal Canadiens in 1970-71. The 85-year-old had a playing career of his own as well, suiting up for 524 career NHL games.
Just a month after firing Gilbert, the Flames found their new head coach in Darryl Sutter. Strangely enough, the Sharks had fired Sutter during the same week the Flames fired Gilbert. Sutter led the team to a 19-18-8-1 record for the remainder of the 2002-03 season.
Near the end of that season, the Flames announced Sutter would also be taking over as their general manager (GM), replacing now TSN analyst Craig Button in that role. The 2003-04 season, his first as both the head coach and GM, was the team’s most successful season in the last twenty years and one of their most successful in franchise history.
Sutter led the Flames to a 42-30-7-3 record that season and went on to advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. They came oh so close to winning what would have been their second Stanley Cup in franchise history, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7.
2004-05 was a lockout, meaning the Flames weren’t able to ride the momentum of their fantastic previous season. Still, when hockey came back for the 2005-06 season, Sutter was able to again lead the team to a successful regular-season record of 46-25-11, though they’d lose in the first round of the playoffs. After that season, Sutter gave up his head coaching duties, saying being both the GM and coach was causing too much stress.
Sutter continued in the GM position until resigning in late December of 2010. He then went on to coach the L.A. Kings from 2011 to 2017, leading the team to two Stanley Cup victories in 2012 and 2014. The 62-year-old, who played 406 career NHL games himself, has since retired from coaching. Despite stepping away from the game, his name will carry on for a long time to come, as he is part of arguably the most iconic family in hockey history.
After stepping down from head coaching duties, Sutter announced that Jim Playfair was the Flames’ new bench boss. Playfair had spent the previous three seasons with the Flames as an assistant and had prior head coaching experience in both the ECHL and AHL. In what turned out to be his first and only season as an NHL head coach, at least to this point, he led the Flames to an impressive 43-29-10 record. His team did go on to get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but it was a fairly successful head coaching debut nonetheless.
Despite a solid first season with the team, Sutter elected to go a different route and bring in a new head coach (listed next) with much more experience. To Playfair’s credit, he did not make a fuss, and agreed to stick around as an assistant coach yet again. He remained in that role until the organization named him the head coach for the 2009-10 season of the Abbotsford Heat, who at the time were the Flames’ AHL affiliate.
He coached the Heat for two seasons, and during that time had what was one of the most memorable coaching tirades of all time, which you can find listed above. He has since gone on to be an assistant coach for the Arizona Coyotes, as well as the Edmonton Oilers, who he joined prior to the beginning of the 2019-20 season. Like many others on this list, he also played in the NHL, although very briefly, appearing in 21 career games.
The coach who Sutter decided to replace Playfair with heading into the 2007-08 season was the legendary Mike Keenan, known to many as Iron Mike. Keenan is known as one of the cruelest coaches in NHL history, using many bizarre tactics to get his teams to play at their best. It’s said he enjoyed internal conflict between teammates, as he somehow thought it brought out the best in players.
While this style seemed to work for Keenan over his illustrious NHL coaching career, which includes both a Stanley Cup Championship and a Jack Adams award, it wasn’t as effective in the newer era. While he was able to lead the Flames to the playoffs in both of the seasons he coached them, he too was unable to get them to advance out of the first round. As a result, the organization fired him in the spring of 2009, and it was the last time he coached an NHL team.
After the Flames fired Keenan, he took five years off before going to coach the Magnitogorsk Metallburg of the KHL. He spent two and a half seasons with Magnitogorsk, winning a championship in his first season with the team. He also had a brief stint behind the bench with Kunlun Red Star of the KHL during the 2017-18 season, but they fired him halfway through the campaign. He has not coached since.
As it stands right now, he ranks 11th all-time in NHL games coached and 12th all-time in wins. While his tenure with the Flames wasn’t great, he had a very successful NHL coaching career as a whole.
The next coach Sutter decided to bring in was his own brother, Brent. With the announcement, Brent became the third Sutter to coach the Flames, with Darryl having done so during the years mentioned above, along with their oldest brother Brian, who coached them for three seasons in the late ’90s.
Brent was often regarded as the most talented player of the brothers, having played in 1111 NHL games while registering 363 goals and 829 points. After his retirement as a player in 1998, he went on to coach the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL for seven straight seasons before the New Jersey Devils named him bench boss for the 2007-08 season. He coached the Devils for two seasons, both of which were very successful, including the 2008-09 season in which he led them to 51 wins.
After that 2008-09 season, Brent chose to step down as the Devils’ head coach, citing family reasons, a move that became highly criticized as just two weeks later, the Flames named him their head coach. He spent three seasons in total with the Flames but was unable to duplicate the regular-season success he had with the Devils, failing to qualify for the postseason in all three.
After the 2011-12 season, Jay Feaster, who had taken over Darryl’s role as GM, decided to part ways with Brent. That is the last we have seen from the 58-year-old in the NHL, as he returned as the Rebels’ head coach the very next season and has remained there ever since. He also currently serves as the Rebels’ general manager.
After letting go of Sutter, Feaster elected to bring in Bob Hartley. Hartley was similar to Keenan, as they were both old school coaches who were known to be very hard on players. Early on, the decision to bring in Hartley didn’t look great, as the team struggled during his first two seasons, missing the playoffs by a wide margin in both.
Despite the struggles, Feaster remained confident in Hartley, and it paid off, as he led the Flames to a 45-30-7 record. That marked the first time the team had made the playoffs since 2009, and as a result, Hartley received his first ever Jack Adams Award. They were able to advance past the first round of the playoffs that year but were eliminated by the Anaheim Ducks in round two.
Unfortunately, they were not able to ride the momentum of their previous season and came crashing back down during the 2015-16 campaign. By the time that season was over, they had a disappointing 35-40-7 record, which turned out to be Hartley’s last, as the Flames’ current GM, Brad Treliving, announced in early May of 2016 he was firing Hartley.
That marked the last time the 60-year-old Hartley has been in the NHL. After the Flames let him go, he took three years off from coaching before heading to the KHL for the 2018-19 season to coach Avangard Omsk. He spent two seasons there, both of which were very successful, including advancing all the way to the league finals during his first year.
Assuming we have seen the last of him behind an NHL bench, he had a very impressive NHL coaching career, which was highlighted by a Stanley Cup win in 2001 with the Colorado Avalanche, along with his Jack Adams Award-winning season in Calgary.
Next up for the Flames was Glen Gulutzan, who marked Treliving’s first coaching hire. Though his resume wasn’t nearly as lengthy as Hartley’s, Gulutzan did have some previous NHL head coaching experience, as he was in that role with the Dallas Stars four years prior. His time with the Stars was short-lived, however, as he failed to make the playoffs in either of his two seasons, which led to the Stars firing him.
After his stint with the Stars, he joined the Canucks as an assistant for three seasons before getting another shot as a head coach with Calgary. His first season with the Flames went quite well, as he led them to a 45-33-4 record, which brought them back into the playoffs, though they’d lose in the first round.
Once again, that early success faded quickly, as Gulutzan’s coached Flames failed to make the postseason in his second year, posting a 37-35-10 record despite a talented roster who many expected to build off of the season prior. As a result, Treliving made the decision to fire the first coach he ever hired as an NHL general manager.
Thankfully for Gulutzan’s sake, it didn’t take long for him to find work, as he headed just a few hours north to join the Edmonton Oilers as an assistant for the 2018-19 season, and he currently still holds the position. At just 49 years old, he has plenty of coaching left in him and may very well get another chance to be a head coach at the NHL level in the future.
If Treliving could go back, the hiring of Bill Peters is one where he would certainly like a do-over. Before the Flames hired him, he had spent many years coaching in the WHL, the AHL, and the NHL, having spent the prior four seasons as the Carolina Hurricanes’ head coach, which was his first head coaching gig in the NHL.
His first season with the Flames was fantastic, as they went 50-27-7 and led the entire Western Conference with 107 points. The playoffs that year cast a dark cloud over the season as a whole, however, as they had a pathetic showing and were defeated by the Colorado Avalanche in just five games despite being heavy favorites. Still, it was the best regular season the Flames had put together in a very long time, as well as the first time Peters had coached a team to a playoff berth.
The Flames came out of the gates slow to start the 2019-20 season, limping to a 12-12-4 record through their first 28 games. Despite the slow start, Peters’ job was not at all in jeopardy, as both management and fans were quite happy with the work he had done to that point. That all changed in a hurry, when on Nov. 25, 2019, a former player of Peters, Akim Aliu, came forward with allegations that the Flames’ head coach had made several racial comments directed at him in the locker room, a claim other players on the team at the time confirmed.
As if that wasn’t bad enough on its own, former Hurricane defenceman Michal Jordan came out just a day after Aliu’s allegation saying that Peters had both kicked and punched players during his time as the team’s head coach, something that current Canes’ head coach Rod Brind’Amour backed up. Treliving made both the obvious and correct choice in firing Peters just a few days after these accusations.
While Peters’ time in the NHL is without a doubt finished, his coaching career as a whole is not. Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg of the KHL hired the 55-year-old last April. Given the major mistakes he has made, he will likely have to remain in the KHL if he wants to continue his career as a coach.
When the Flames fired Peters, Geoff Ward, who was serving as an assistant at the time, became the team’s interim head coach. It was and continues to be a feel-good story for the 58-year-old, who has been a coach in the NHL since the 2007-08 season but always as an assistant. This new opportunity marked the first time Ward had been the head coach of a team since the 2006-07 season when he coached the Iserlohn Roosters in the DEL.
Prior to his lone season in the DEL, Ward spent many seasons in the AHL as both a head and assistant coach, along with many years in the OHL as a head coach as well. While the team still battled consistency issues, they were much better under Ward than they were with Peters to begin the season, going 25-15-3 under their new bench boss.
As a result of their improved play, they finished third place in the Pacific Division and easily qualified for the NHL’s 24-team playoff format. Their play-in series came against the Winnipeg Jets, who they beat three games to one in the best of five. They were then matched up against the Dallas Stars and were nearly up 3-1 in that series, as they had a lead in game four with just seconds remaining before Joe Pavelski scored to tie the game. Instead, the Stars were able to win that game in overtime and never looked back, beating the Flames in six games and continuing to advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
While it resulted in yet another disappointing playoff exit for the Flames, they did look much better under Ward in the postseason than they had in previous years. Treliving clearly saw the same thing, as he announced in mid-September that he was removing the interim tag from Ward’s job title, officially making him the 20th coach in franchise history and the 11th since the 2000-01 season. The hope now for the Flames’ organization and its fans is that he is able to be successful and remain as the team’s head coach for a number of seasons going forward, something that has been lacking in Calgary.
Colton Pankiw is a former Jr. A hockey player who now provides his knowledge of the game through writing. He’s been a very active and reliable source for nearly two years at The Hockey Writers. He is a credentialed writer for the Calgary Flames but also does features on other teams throughout the league. Other writing contributions include: Oil On Whyte, NHLtradetalk.com, and Markerzone.com. Colton is also a co-host of both Oilers Overtime and Flames Faceoff podcasts. Any interview requests or content info can be made through him on Twitter. Take a look at his work here.