Boston Bruins, 1972-2000
East Division Title, 1972-1973
Adams Division Titles, 1975-1979, 1982-1984, 1989-1991, 1992-1993
President’s Trophy, 1989-1990
Playoff Appearances: 1973-1996, 1998-1999
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1974, 1977-1978, 1988, 1990
Harry Sinden is the greatest NHL general manager never to have won the Stanley Cup. No other Cup-less GM scored higher in my rating system than Sinden did. (If you’re wondering about 1970, Sinden was not the Bruins GM when he coached Boston to their Stanley Cup victory that year. He was only the head coach—Milt Schmidt was the general manager. Sinden never won the Stanley Cup as a GM).
According to my rating system Harry Sinden was the second greatest general manager of the 1970s (one point ahead of Keith Allen); the third best general manager of the 1980s (between Bill Torrey and Cliff Fletcher); and the fourth best general manager of the 1990s (between Pierre Lacroix and Jim Devellano).
Even though Sinden never managed a Cup winner, he managed Boston through an incredible streak of success: 24 consecutive playoff appearances (no other NHL GM has equaled this); 10 division titles, 10 conference final appearances, and five Stanley Cup finals appearances; all the while displaying a keen eye for acquiring playing and coaching talent; and developing and showcasing some of the game’s greatest players and coaches.
Sinden made his name by completing one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in NHL history when he took the Boston Bruins, who had finished last in Sinden’s rookie season of coaching in 1966/67, to the 1970 Stanley Cup title. In that time frame Sinden had converted a team of young, raw talents into a powerhouse that became the second best team in the NHL (after the Montreal Canadiens) from 1967 to 1979.
He gave the Bruins their identity by emphasizing offensive hockey, a close-checking game, quick to transition from defence to offense and back again; becoming, in many ways, the guru of the offensive explosion that dominated NHL hockey during the 1980s and early 1990s.
And so mere days after he led the Bruins to the pinnacle, he abruptly retired from coaching; angered at the Bruins’ refusal to give him a substantial raise despite his sterling coaching efforts (Boston added insult to injury by placing Sinden on the voluntary retirement list thus precluding him from accepting any offers from other teams for a full year).
Sinden went into home construction with mixed results. In 1972 he was free to sign with other NHL teams and, indeed, the New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the St. Louis Blues each made him coaching offers but Sinden turned them down.
(Those are great hockey what-ifs when you consider the scenarios).
It was the 1972 Summit Series that brought Sinden back into the game. The come from behind series win renewed Sinden’s fame when Milt Schmidt retired as Boston GM the Bruins asked Sinden to take over as general manager and Sinden returned to the team he made into champions.
There was nothing noteworthy about his early draft picks (the one exception being future Hall-of-famer Mark Howe who preferred to play for the WHA instead of Boston. That’s another great hockey what-if: if Howe had been there during game seven of the 1979 semifinal against Montreal, could he have stopped Guy Lafleur from tying the game? Or else imagine a blue-line tandem of Mark Howe and Raymond Bourque? The mind boggles).
Raymond Bourque was Harry Sinden’s first gem. Bourque continued the tradition of great Boston defencemen from Eddie Shore to Bobby Orr to Raymond Bourque. Bourque became the heart and soul of the Bruins teams of the 1980s and the 1990s until he was traded to Colorado during the 1999/2000 season.
In many ways, Sinden’s draft picks were good, solid, functional hard-hat players who never really stood out (save for Bourque) by themselves but were good team players nevertheless.
Sinden was more of a shrewd trader than he was a draft-picker. His greatest blockbuster was the 1975 deal that sent Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais to the New York Rangers for Jean Ratelle and Brad Park. (Espo never forgave Sinden for that trade). After the initial shock wore off, Ratelle and Park quickly integrated themselves into the hockey politic of Boston.
He loved stealing other team’s goaltenders: Gilles Gilbert in 1973; Rogie Vachon in 1980; Pete Peeters in 1982; and Andy Moog in 1988.
And it wasn’t solely playing talent that made Sinden successful he also helped launch several prominent NHL coaching careers: Bep Guidolin, Don Cherry, Gerry Cheevers, Terry O’Reilly, Butch Goring, Mike Milbury, Rick Bowness, and Steve Kasper.
When Sinden couldn’t grow his own coaching talent, he would find it outside the Hub. Fred Creighton, Brian Sutter, and the late Pat Burns had coaching stints under Sinden (the choice of Burns is an odd one. Harry Sinden was the maven of offensive and here he was hiring Pat Burns, the ultimate defensive coach in NHL history. It was doomed from the start).
The thing is, Sinden launched these men’s coaching career but he also fired most of them as well. (Don Cherry has never missed an opportunity to rip Sinden in the many books he has published).
Still Sinden got respect and his just due from his coaches. Brian Sutter told Mike Johnston and Ryan Walter that, “We had a wonderful time. It was so different being with Harry. I absolutely loved those three years we had in Boston.” (Sutter wasn’t fired by Harry Sinden. He resigned after three years and retired from coaching for a two year spell).
Despite the musical-coaches aspect, amazingly it all worked out because Boston was always competitive; always winning; always playoff-bound and during the remainder of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s the Bruins had opportunities to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
It was in 1991 (according to my calculations) that Harry Sinden entered the top five ranks but whether he will remain among the top five is doubtful. (Lou Lamoriello and Ken Holland are inches behind Sinden in the charts and it is doubtful that they will be denied entry into the top five ranks, especially Ken Holland. Actually Sinden lost his number five slot to Lamoriello after the 2011/12 season but regained it after the 2012/13 season ended).
It was after Brian Sutter’s departure in 1995 that Sinden’s luck began to run out slowly. He endured his first losing season in 1996/97. The team was underachieving and Sinden was grooming his successor Mike O’Connell to replace him.
Finally in 2000, Sinden stepped aside as general manager yet remained club president until 2006 when he officially retired.
Even though Boston never won a Stanley Cup while he was general manager, Sinden’s record of consistency remains one of the great managerial achievements in NHL history. Even if he had solely been a general manager, he still was imminently worthy of his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983 as a builder.
(Next week’s column will feature the fourth-greatest general manager in NHL history.)