Don Lever and the Stupidity of Politics

Jonathan Willis
May 05 2009 01:20PM

Al MacNeil

The guy pictured above is Al MacNeil. He was at one point the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, and his story is a cautionary tale for Montreal head coaching candidates.

MacNeil played more than 500 games in the NHL, and he ended his career as a player-coach for Montreal’s AHL affiliate, the Montreal Voyageurs. The next season, he was promoted to the position of assistant coach with the big club, serving under coach Claude Ruel. With the team struggling, Ruel resigned mid-season, and MacNeil was elevated to the head coaching position. The team went 31-15-9 the rest of the way, and in the playoffs MacNeil decided to use rookie Ken Dryden (who had played only six games) and he ended up winning the Stanley Cup.

Unfortunately, MacNeil didn’t speak French. He feuded with Henri Richard, and benched him at one point for poor play en route to winning the Stanley Cup. Only in Montreal could a coach win the Stanley Cup and be removed without coaching another game; MacNeil was sent back to the AHL, where he led the Nova Scotia Voyageurs to three Calder Cup wins in six years. He later resurfaced with the Atlanta Flames, and spent three seasons as the coach, first in Atlanta and then in Calgary. He went into management, and was an assistant G.M. when the Flames won the Cup in 1989.

Don Lever hasn’t won a Stanley Cup as a head coach; in fact, all of his head coaching experience comes in the AHL, but the situation he finds himself in to some extent parallels that of MacNeil. Like MacNeil, Lever is quite limited in French, and because of this he may end up not being considered as a legitimate candidate for the top coaching job in Montreal.

Lever’s a logical candidate for the head coaching position in a lot of ways. He has spent fourteen seasons as either an assistant or an associate coach in Buffalo and St. Louis. He was in the middle of his sixth season as an AHL head coach when he was promoted to the assistant’s job in Montreal after Guy Carbonneau was fired. His AHL record is excellent, featuring three deep playoff runs in five seasons, including a Calder Cup win in 2007.

Right now, Lever is in no man's land. One year remains on his contract; an option year for Montreal, and Bob Gainey hasn’t told Lever whether he intends to exercise that option or not. Returning to Hamilton may not be an option, as his assistant was made the interim head coach. Lever’s been told that he’s allowed to talk to other teams about securing a job for next season, and the job in Edmonton is one that he appears to be very interested in.

The fact that Lever is being allowed to pursue other jobs, as well as public statements by Canadiens’ president Pierre Boivin that the next head coach would be a Francophone make it clear that Lever isn’t being seriously considered for the Montreal job. But there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be considered for the job in Edmonton, particularly since the organization already has some familiarity with him from when he coached Oilers prospects in Hamilton.

He certainly has the resume (as Lowetide showed so well a few weeks ago) and it’s hard to see any reason why he wouldn’t be on Edmonton’s short-list.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 scorcoff hemmercules
May 05 2009, 01:39PM
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Good read. Didn't really know much about him until I read this but he sounds like he should be considered.

Why would you say that he's "very interested" in the edmonton job? All he said was the oil are looking actively.

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#2 Chris
May 05 2009, 01:42PM
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Lever "The Cleaver" was also one heckuva hockey player. Played 15 seasons scoring more than twenty goals six times. Real character guy. Played lots on special teams. I think he is getting a raw deal in Montreal.

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#3 Archaeologuy
May 05 2009, 01:43PM
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I dont know if the Oilers are willing to hire anyone who doesnt speak boysonthebusish

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#4 Jonathan Willis
May 05 2009, 01:44PM
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@ scorcoff hemmercules:

Well, he's pursuing a head coaching job and he seems to think that Edmonton's the only possibility right now. Admittedly, I'm reading into things a bit but it seems reasonable to do so.

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#5 dragon
May 05 2009, 01:53PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

I dont know if the Oilers are willing to hire anyone who doesnt speak boysonthebusish

We still hope Tambo brings a new 'dialect' this summer, right? And what better language changer than the coach...

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#6 scorcoff hemmercules
May 05 2009, 02:05PM
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@ Jonathan Willis:

I see where you're coming from. He said he's getting his name out there, I assume he's already contacted the Oilers??

On another note, Renney was on the TSN panel over the weekend during the intermissions and didn't impress me that much. Laviolette did all the talking and Renney just tossed around some nods and obvious statements from what I saw. What were Renney's special teams like during his NHL coaching carrer??? Is his NHL resume even that great??

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#7 DK0
May 05 2009, 02:08PM
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I dont care what language he speaks, as long as he speaks "playoffs"

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#8 Quinn
May 05 2009, 02:14PM
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@ DK0: Hear hear

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#9 Colin
May 05 2009, 02:38PM
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@ DK0:

Forget that, he needs to know "home-ice advantage" and "how to get past the first round"

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#10 Colin
May 05 2009, 02:41PM
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And yes Montreal is a ridiculous city to play hockey in, if you don't know french it seems like you're a pariah. Ludicrous, winning should be the only relevant thing.

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#11 DK0
May 05 2009, 03:08PM
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@ Colin: I think next year all I expect is playoffs, year after that we better start moving up the ladder unless something drastic happens (saddledome collapses during battle of alberta, mass suicides in both cities follow as no one has anything to live for. With everyone dead there is no no market for a team here anymore and the teams are reborn as the Hawaii Volcanoes and the Alaska Offshore Driller's. This leads to an even worse road schedule for west coast teams and the east wins the next 15 stanley cups)

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#12 RBK
May 05 2009, 04:41PM
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I think Tom Renney is on Just a game today. That should be interesting

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#13 Archaeologuy
May 05 2009, 05:11PM
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@ RBK: he was very interesting on Just A Game, he supported Jagr without question and made it seem like under him Horcoff would be used as a 2 way forward (though he made sure not to say 3rd line checker. He was ambivalent on that point). He said he would put Hemsky in the position to be "the go to guy" that he wanted to be and put his trust in him. overall very interesting.

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#14 MoeLemayStays
May 05 2009, 06:04PM
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In the end the Flames did not treat Al MacNeil well either. A longtime employee with the Flames, he was a victim of the lockout. It was a year off for many Flames employees, yet when the lockout was over he wasn't sure he had a job or not. He wasn't fired or anything, Sutter just never called him to tell him he still had a job or was fired. Always a gentleman, he didn't make a big deal about it. Some of the FAN960 guys commented that the Flames showed a lack of class by not honouring their former coach, or showing the decency to make even a phone call.

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#15 Jonathan Willis
May 05 2009, 11:41PM
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MoeLemayStays wrote:

Sutter just never called him to tell him he still had a job or was fired

The more I see and read about Sutter the less I like him.

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