Book Review: Bench Bosses

There are innumerable books on the market that rank the greatest players of all time but very few authors have taken a look at the men directing the teams and performers that get the bulk of the ink.

Every team has at least one coach and, while there has been an increasing number of releases that examine the lives and careers of many of the best in the business, they tend to be biographies or autobiographies that cover one guy’s life in hockey, not works that compare him to his peers through the years.

Matthew DiBiase’s Bench Bosses – The NHL’s Coaching Elite uses a variation of the system Bill James developed for evaluating baseball excellence and ranks the top 50 all-time NHL coaches. DiBiase awards his subjects points for a winning season, finishing with a record of .600 or better, making the playoffs, winning their league or division, making the finals and capturing the championship silverware. It also penalizes them for guiding their teams to losing seasons, missing the playoffs, posting a sub-.400 winning percentage and finishing last in regular season play.

Billed as an NHL-era volume, Bench Bosses also considers coaches from as the NHA as well as the western PCHL and WHL/WCHL loops, many of whom were also active in NHL affairs as well. It also includes men who ran WHA benches.

Five years in the making and drawing on a series of pieces that originally ran on this site, DiBiase’s opening effort reads as a series of short biographies on the 50 men at the top of the heap covering the high and low points of their career and their achievements behind the bench. They draw from personal interviews with about three dozen former players, most active in the six-team era as well as citing close to 100 previously published works, be they print or online.

DiBiase’s prose is engaging, coherent and entertaining, with the quotes gleaned from his interviews revealing occasional (until now) unknown anecdotes and memories. It is also dotted with words (I now know what “historicity” and “rusticating” mean) not usually found in hockey literature.

It should come as no surprise that the top three, in order, are Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake and Dick Irvin but to find Joel Quenneville in fifth spot did come as a bit of a shock to this scribbler. So did the fact that Phil Watson does not feature on the list of the ten worst coaches that DiBiase has also thoughtfully included. Milt Schmidt, second from the bottom of the barrel has been retired for quite some time but the man who comes in as the least effective of all time can still be found behind an NHL bench.*

Bench Bosses also functions as a handy spreadsheet, considering coaches in their chronological context with a chapter listing the best of each decade and each coach’s career high water mark both in terms of points awarded and rung they occupied on the list. It also provides a list of the all-time wins leaders among coaches for each of the current NHL franchises. Interestingly, Scotty Bowman is not included.

Some books settle debates, others initiate them. Bench Bosses does both. Among the areas of discussion that could be pursued by folks after reading the book is that Darryl Sutter ranks above Pat Burns. So does Bill Dineen. Mike Babcock is a few rungs above Punch Imlach and Don Cherry outranks Roger Neilson.

Extensive, meticulous, well-executed and thoughtfully put together, DiBiase’s initial release is definitely one worth reading. It seems his next effort will deal with basketball. Pity.

Bench Bosses – The NHL’s Coaching Elite
Matthew DiBiase
544 pages
Fenn –M&S
* Rick Bowness