The Hartford Whalers of the late 1980s and early 1990s were competitive at times. That used to be the nicest thing anyone could say about them.
From 1987-88 to the 1991-92 NHL season, the Whalers made the Stanley Cup Playoffs five straight years. They did so by finishing fourth in the five-team Adams Division before bowing out in the first round each year. They posted one winning season in that time.
But years later, players from those teams have made a greater impact on the League than anyone could have expected. Nine Whalers from that time have been a coach in either the NHL, an international, minor or junior league.
"I just think we had a real good group of guys. I remember always having a lot of discussions between all the players, whether it be about penalty killing or power play," said Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who played in Hartford from 1984-90. "All of us would sit around and talk about the game and figure out how it worked and how to get better."
At one point last season, five of the NHL's 30 teams had a Whalers player from that era as its coach: Tippett, Kevin Dineen (Florida Panthers), Joel Quenneville (Chicago Blackhawks), Todd Richards (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Randy Cunneyworth (Montreal Canadiens). All but Cunneyworth remain on the job.
And it's not just coaches. Hartford alums from that period include three current NHL general managers, seven assistant coaches and four prominent front-office figures. That doesn't even count Mike Liut, who is an agent representing players Cory Schneider, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Malone. Oh, and there's also Ray Ferraro, who is a top hockey broadcaster/analyst.
"It was a small town, we all hung out with each other. We almost knew everyone in Hartford," said Quenneville, who last season was knocked out of the playoffs by former teammate Tippett when the Coyotes eliminated the Blackhawks in the opening round. "We're all still friends today and we keep track of one another and keep in touch. But it's amazing how many guys on that team are still in our business."
It's impossible to say who or what is responsible for this sequence of events surrounding the Whalers. Maybe there was something in the water in Hartford. Maybe it's just a classic example of effective networking.
The man who helped put those teams together isn't surprised by the success his players have had since retiring.
"They were class guys on the ice and off the ice. They were leaders in their own right. They were a team," said Emile Francis, who served as Hartford's general manager from 1983-89. "That's the way you have to think if you're going to be a coach or a manager. You have to think about the team."
From the moment Francis took over the Whalers, he knew he had some work to do. The club was an NHL doormat and in need of a top-to-bottom makeover. In his quest to turn over the roster, Francis established a model for the type of player he wanted: a hard worker who studied the game, the kind of player who might someday become a coach or manager.
Following that model, Francis brought in Quenneville and Tippett, as well as similar players Dean Evason, the former Washington Capitals assistant who coaches the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League, and Dave Babych, the Vancouver Canucks' assistant director of player personnel. They eventually bonded with a group of draft picks that included Dineen, Ron Francis, the Carolina Hurricanes' vice president of hockey operations, and Ulf Samuelsson, Tippett's former assistant who coaches Modo of the Swedish Elite League.
"It's pretty amazing when you think about the amount of guys. You had Joel and myself and [St. Louis Blues assistant coach] Brad Shaw. That's three of the defensemen. Ulf Samuelsson is now in Sweden. That's four," said Norm Maciver, who played 37 games in Hartford and serves as Chicago's assistant general manager. "Then Dave Babych, who works for Vancouver. Almost all the defensemen there are involved [in hockey] in some capacity."
Much of Hartford's blue-line corps from that era eventually earned a prominent NHL job, including Marc Bergevin, the Montreal Canadiens general manager who spent two seasons in Hartford. But there was one forward in particular who most of the organization was certain would someday become an NHL bench boss.
"The one guy that was the student of the game was Dave Tippett," Liut told NHL.com "He spent a lot of time watching video, which he played on his own at home. He had a little video room that he'd migrate to. He was the student of the group, that's for sure. His design I think was to coach."
Sure enough, immediately after retiring as a player, Tippett was named coach of the Houston Aeros of the International Hockey League. Seven years later, he was coach of the Dallas Stars. And when the Coyotes started looking for someone to replace Wayne Gretzky in 2009, they tabbed Tippett.
The general manager who hired him was Don Maloney, another former Hartford Whalers player. He likely saw in Tippett the kind of coaching qualities many Whalers demonstrated years earlier.
"We were playing against Montreal and we're down in the last minute and they were leading by a goal. So we call a timeout. There's me and Ronnie Francis and Kevin Dineen and Babych and Ray Ferraro," said John Anderson, the former Atlanta Thrashers coach who assists Tippett in Phoenix. "Babych says, 'This is what I think we should do.' Then Ronnie goes, 'No, this is what we should do.' Then Kevin says, 'No, this is what we should do.' Back then, the coaching was a little different.
"You know what it was? It was too many chiefs and not enough Indians."
Now, all those chiefs are making their mark around the NHL.
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