Profiles in Excellence: Terry Crisp

Terry Crisp: Rank #45 – 16 points

Coaching Experience: Calgary Flames, 1987-90; Tampa Bay Lightning, 1992-97

Regular Season W-L-T: 286-267-78; Playoff W-L: 24-19

President’s Trophy: 1987-89; Smythe Division Titles: 1988-90

Playoff Appearances: 1988-90, 1996

Stanley Cup Final Appearance: 1989; Stanley Cup Victory: 1989

After his first three years of coaching the Calgary Flames Terry Crisp was the best coach in the NHL. In that time he won more games (144) than any other NHL coach.

Three straight years his Flames had a team-points percentage of .600 or better. Indeed they became the second team in NHL history to win two consecutive President’s Trophies for having the best regular season record of any NHL team.

Crisp won three divisional titles and earned three playoff appearances; set a franchise record for wins and team points (which still stands) and in 1989 became the only coach in Calgary Flames history to win the Stanley Cup. In addition, Crisp developed two fine rookie players in Joe Nieuwendyk and Sergei Makarov (both of whom won the Calder Memorial Trophy).

And what was Crisp’s reward for coaching those three stellar seasons? He was fired by long-time Flames GM Cliff Fletcher; ostensibly for failing to repeat as Stanley Cup champion; quite possibly because Crisp occasionally clashed with specific players.

In the end it didn’t really matter. He was fired.

Cliff Fletcher himself would leave one year later; and the Flames would never contend in the Stanley Cup finals again until 2004 (It’s a testament to Crisp’s character that he remained friends with Cliff Fletcher after his dismissal).

Crisp never again came close to equaling those three magical seasons.

Crisp hales from Parry Sound, Ontario (the same spawning ground for the immortal Bobby Orr). Crisp was a center with solid defensive skills and a high hockey IQ. Crisp wound his way through the Boston Bruins farm system and had a brief cup of coffee with them during the 1965-66 Season. When the NHL expanded in 1967 Crisp was claimed by the St. Louis Blues franchise where he played under Scotty Bowman during their glory years from 1967-70.

When the NHL expanded in 1972, Crisp, again, was claimed in the expansion draft by the New York Islanders where he served for most of their inaugural season until he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1973.

Crisp was a key role-player during the Broad Street Bullies era. He was not part of the brawling element of the team. Instead his focus was in penalty killing situations and defending against the opposition’s big offensive guns. Crisp, as a player, should be remembered for the solid defensive work he did in containing the likes of Orr and Phil Esposito during the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals. Crisp was no goal-scorer, but when it came to buttressing the Flyers defense, he was one of the reasons why the Flyers had one of the best defensive and best penalty killing units in the NHL.

Crisp retired as a player in 1977 and immediately became an assistant coach under the late Freddie Shero; remaining in that role under Bob McCammon and Pat Quinn. In 1979 he began coaching in Canadian junior hockey where he twice earned coach of the year honors.

By 1985 Crisp was coaching the Flames’ minor league team in the AHL where he continued his winning ways. When the late Bob Johnson left the Flames in 1987, Crisp was tapped to replace him as head coach.

When you examine Crisp’s Calgary teams one is struck by how well balanced they were. They were potent in all aspects of the game: offense, defense, power play offense, penalty killing, and shorthanded offense. Three times Crisp’s Flames were in the top two in offense, power play offense and power play percentage and they led the NHL in penalty killing and shorthanded offense one time apiece. Not only did Crisp’s Flames have solid two-way skills they also were mean, twice ranking in the top-five in team penalty minutes.

The Calgary Flames were a highly competitive team from 1984-91. They (along with the Philadelphia Flyers) provided the toughest opposition to the Edmonton Oilers dynasty teams during that time period. Forwards Hakan Loob, Joe Mullen, Mike Bullard, Makarov and Nieuwendyk supplied the offense.

Blue-liners Gary Suter and Al MacInnis were not only crack defenders but contributed greatly to the Flames offensive output with their superb playmaking skills. MacInnis won the Conn Smythe Trophy during the Flames 1989 Cup win.

Augmenting the defense were forwards Tim Hunter and Doug Gilmour. Hunter was a crushing hitter who supplied the meanness and muscle for the Flames while Doug Gilmour was one of the finest defensive forwards in the NHL.

Goalie Mike Vernon provided solid coverage between the pipes.

After he was fired by the Flames, Crisp worked with Team Canada in international hockey and, later, the 1992 Canadian Olympic Hockey team until the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning hired him to be their very first head coach.

For five seasons Crisp labored to bring the Lightning into the NHL mainstream. During that period his personal coaching style changed. Hockey writer Stan Fischler writes that “during the period from his big-league coaching debut in 1987 and today [1995], Crisp has undergone a significant personality metamorphosis behind the bench. Where once he was a virtually uncontrollable firebrand, he now is more conservative and controlled.”

By 1996 he had led the Lightning to their first winning season and playoff appearance. Sadly he could not sustain his success and in 1997 he was fired as head coach.

Crisp told Stan Fischler in 1995, “I had my eyes on two possible post-playing careers: coaching and TV work. I knew I wanted to be involved somehow in hockey and I really enjoyed TV analysis….”

After he was fired by the Lightning, coaching no longer held its former charm. He became a hockey commentator for TSN in Canada, Fox Sports, and now, today, is the radio and TV color analyst for the Nashville Predators.

The cruelest aspect of NHL coaching is that being a Stanley cup winner (or just a plain winning coach) is no insurance against being fired; that sometimes it doesn’t matter that you’re getting optimum performance from your players; or whether you are popular with the fans or the press. If a coach should get in the crosshairs of a hostile owner, GM, a superstar player, the press or even the fans then there is nothing that can save you. It’s an endlessly worrying thing. Crisp was neither the first nor the last NHL coach to suffer this fate.

But what makes Terry Crisp’s story more poignant is that his firing from Calgary in 1990 did not improve the Flames but instead began a long, slow decline which only now is beginning to end; and his departure from coaching in 1997 robbed the NHL the services of a very talented coach.

In the end it’s the game, and the fans, that got cheated.

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