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.