Profiles in Excellence: Harry Neale

Harry Neale: Rank #45 – 16 points

WHA Coaching Experience: Minnesota Fighting Saints, 1973-76; New England Whalers, 1976-78

WHA Regular Season W-L-T: 208-175-21; WHA Playoff W-L: 32-32

WHA Playoff Appearances: 1973-78; Avco Cup Finals: 1978

NHL Coaching Experience: Vancouver Canucks, 1978-82, 1984-85; Detroit Red Wings, 1985

NHL Regular Season W-L-T: 150-212-80; NHL Playoff W-L: 3-11

NHL Playoff Appearances: 1980-81, 1984

The top 50 list ends with Harry Neale and I don’t understand why. In 13 seasons of coaching he only had five winning seasons.

And yet he ranks among the top 50.

He is the only coach on my list who never coached a team that scored a point percentage of .600 or better in a single season.

And yet he ranks among the top 50.

Neale is the only coach on my list who never got a first place finish during his entire coaching career

And yet he ranks among the top 50.

Neale’s WHA coaching success (unlike Jacques Demers or Glen Sather) did not translate well when he coached in the NHL. In truth his record in the NHL was rather pathetic.

And yet he still ranks among the top 50.

The question is how?

Neale is known more today for doing color commentary for the Buffalo Sabres. He, like Don Cherry, has been spent more time in the broadcast booth than he has behind the bench.

Neale was a product of the Toronto Maple Leafs farm system. He played two years with the Toronto Marlboros where he was teammates with future Leaf immortals: Bob Pulford, Bob Baun, Carl Brewer, and Bob Nevin. Unlike them, Neale never made it to the NHL; working instead as a teacher and hockey coach at a high school in Hamilton, Ontario.

In the late 1960s he developed a fortuitous friendship with Glen Sonmor who helped him get the head coaching job with the Ohio State University hockey team. Neale spent two years coaching at OSU before returning to coaching junior hockey back in Hamilton again.

It wasn’t until 1972 that he caught his first big break when Sonmor asked Neale to serve as his assistant coach with the Minnesota Fighting Saints franchise in the brand new World Hockey Association.

Sonmor was head coach and GM of the team and carried both portfolios for most the 1972-73 season, however, Sonmor’s GM duties interfered with his ability to coach. He needed time to recruit new prospects for the franchise and coaching the team hampered his ability to do so. Sonmor had been delegating a lot of responsibility to Neale. With 19 games left in Minnesota’s inaugural season, Sonmor formally yielded the helm to Neale while he remained as GM.

For the duration of the Fighting Saints checkered existence Neale would be their head coach.

Neale eked out a winning season and early playoff elimination. During the next five seasons Neale would earn 12 of his 16 success points coaching in the WHA; in the process becoming the second most successful coach in the seven year history of the league behind Bill Dineen.

Neale’s coaching stint with the Fighting Saints symbolizes the star-crossed nature of the rebel league. The team won but never dominated the standings. They played better than the NHL rival Minnesota North Stars yet the team never stopped hemorrhaging money.

The Fighting Saints though did dominate one aspect of the game: they were biggest brawlers in the WHA. Gord Gallant and the brothers Carlson: Jack, Jeff, and Steve ran roughshod over the opposition. Jeff and Steve Carlson would eventually gain iconic status for their portrayal of two-thirds of the pugnacious Hanson brothers in the Paul Newman movie Slap Shot.

The Saints folded in 1976 but Neale was not unemployed for long. The New England Whalers picked him up. Even though the Whalers ended up with a losing record they made it to a third round playoff elimination at the hands of Bill Dineen’s Houston Aeros.

The Whalers struggled through a losing season in 1976-77 but the following year was Neale’s greatest season as a coach. Blessed with the addition of Gordie Howe and his sons Marty and Mike, Neale led the Whalers to the Avco Cup finals against the Winnipeg Jets. It was the only time Neale coached a team in a championship final, with the Jets annihilating the Whalers in four straight.

Neale switched leagues in 1978, jumping from the Whalers to the Vancouver Canucks. It speaks volumes about how hapless the Vancouver franchise was at the time that Harry Neale (with a record of 142-189-76) won more games than any other Canucks coach and would remain the winningest Vancouver coach until the arrival of Marc Crawford and Alain Vigneault.

Neale never had a winning season with the Canucks but nonetheless was able to lead the Canucks to four playoff appearances. This helps explain why Neale ranks among the top 50.

Neale’s teams made 10 playoff appearances in 13 seasons and when Neale coached the Canucks he was lucky that the team was in the Smythe Division which at that time was the weakest division in the NHL.

Neale flirted with glory only once during his stay in Vancouver. Near the end of the 1981-82 season, the Canucks were coming on strong to finish second in the division and earn a playoff spot. With five games left to go in the season, Neale had a near physical altercation with an abusive fan during a game with the Quebec Nordiques. NHL commissioner John Ziegler, not amused by Neale’s behavior, suspended Neale for eight games—which meant that Neale would not be coaching the team during the first round of the playoffs.

This is when the late Roger Neilson (who was Neale’s assistant coach in Vancouver) took over and led the Canucks through their improbable romp all the way to their 1982 Stanley Cup finals appearance against the New York Islanders.

What hockey fans don’t realize is that Neale could have resumed his place behind the bench when the second round of the playoffs began against the L.A. Kings. Neale, in an amazing act of unselfishness, chose not to do so.

He later explained to Dick Irvin Jr. in the book Behind the Bench, “I’m at every practice and I go through all the planning with Roger, but I can’t go on the ice or behind the bench. Now with the team doing so good I’m thinking, why the hell would I want to go behind the bench? I knew that on June 1st I was going to become general manager because Jake Milford was retiring. If I hadn’t known that, I would have gone back as coach. So Roger stayed on as coach and the rest is history. ”

Neale served as the Canucks GM but was forced to fire Neilson and serve as head coach again. By 1985 Neale himself was fired by the Canucks and was hired by the Detroit Red Wings.

Sadly for Neale he was jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The Wings were even worse than the Canucks during the mid-1980s. Neale lasted 35 games and was fired unceremoniously in late December 1985.

Neale went immediately into broadcasting and never returned to the bench ever again.

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