Monday, February 16, 2009

A Man Lost His Job Yesterday

A man lost his job yesterday.

That’s hardly news these days, what with the economy being the way it is and employment news being a daily dose of despair.

But this is a bit different. And it is the same old story.

Michel Therrien was relieved of his duties as head coach by the Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday. Therrien, who has a reputation of being hard on his players from time to time, is also only the third coach in that franchise’s 41-season history to take his club to a Stanley Cup final, Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman being the others.

What was it that got Therrien fired? The proximate cause was that his team – having gone to that Stanley Cup final last year – didn’t look as if it was getting there this year. In fact, it was becoming less and less likely that it would even qualify for the playoffs this season. And, in a town that prides itself as being a city of champions (its professional football team having just earned such a prize), that is a considerable burden to bear.

What have you done lately for us, Mike?…oh, and here’s your coat.

Firing the coach is the oldest supposed “remedy” to what ails a team in sports. It isn’t even limited to sports. Students of history might recall that George B. McClellan was “fired” by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 for not winning enough against the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

But unlike 1862, these days a coach is under the microscope 24-7. Newspapers, sports talk radio, internet message boards, and blogs see to that. A coach isn’t as good as his last season, he’s as good as his last game. And if that game is a loss, the criticism can be a white-hot blowtorch of invective directed at the coach.

Therrien probably didn’t help his own cause by being a somewhat abrasive personality as a coach, given to calling out his players in public from time to time and being abrupt with the media. But here, too, is a coach who in 11 previous seasons in professional hockey (AHL and NHL) took eight teams to the playoffs, twice taking his teams to his league’s championship series.

If anything, the firing says a lot more about people surrounding the event than the subject of the exercise. And in a way, this is the same old story, too.

Ray Shero, the general manager who fired Therrien and who is now on something of a hot seat himself, was the overseer of changes to the team that went to last year’s Stanley Cup final, none of which might be objectively considered improvements. Whether he had the power to stop it or not, he had neither the skill nor perhaps the inclination to retain the services of Ryan Malone or Marian Hossa, both of whom left for other teams via free agency. Malone is 19-12-31, +3 for a struggling Tampa Bay team. Hossa is 33-27-60, +18 for the Red Wings. They were replaced by Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko – both capable players in their own right – but at a combined 28-25-53 (less than a “Hossa”alone) cannot be said to have been a remedy for the departures.

Shero also moved mountains – well, prospects – to get Hossa in the first place. When confronted with the opportunity to win now (and there is pressure on Shero and all GM’s to do that as well), it is the sort of thing management does. But it did no favors for Therrien in the longer run. Shero moved forwards Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito, and a first-round draft pick in the 2008 entry draft (Daultan Leveille) to secure the services of Hossa for the stretch run and the playoffs. One could reasonably argue that it was worth it, given that the Penguins came within two games of winning a Stanley Cup last year.

But the operative words in that last sentence are, “last year.” What have you done for us lately, Mike? So you don’t have Armstrong, or Christensen, or Malone, or Hossa. That’s a lot of scoring and grit removed from a team, replaced by Satan, Fedotenko, Pascal Dupuis (who came in the Hossa deal with Atlanta), and Matt Cooke (who was signed as a free agent). Ask youself, looking at this year only, without having knowledge of the deals made for a Stanley Cup run, would you make that trade? Those four players for those four players? Because that’s the hand Therrien was dealt this year.

And it helped get him fired.

But what is new as the dawn and as old as the sun in this is the drumbeat of fan displeasure leading up to the firing and the poorly-hidden glee with which the firing is being received by many of those same fans. Penguin fans are not unique in this regard. We don’t even have to look very far to remember a similar instance – the events leading up to the firing of Glen Hanlon as coach of the Capitals will suffice. But what gets lost in the “Fire Therrien” – or “Fire [insert name of beleaguered coach here]” – talk is that these are men doing a job. It is still unseemly, the manner in which fans can treat coaches (and players for that matter) as disposable commodities to be “gotten rid of” or to be dismissed without a thought. And these days, fans do not lack for the vehicles to voice that displeasure – loudly and often. Instant chatter – on message boards, talk radio, and blogs – serves to create a “critical mass” of displeasure that has to influence a decision and its timing to fire a coach.

Therrien isn’t the sort to inspire much in the way of sympathy, given his public persona, but he’s a guy with the same sort of day-to-day concerns any of us would face, or have to face, with the loss of a job. Scott Burnside wrote of another side of Therrien’s life a couple of years ago, a story that adds depth to the sometimes two-dimensional perspective fans get on their local sports personalities. It’s the sort of thing that should give fans pause when they are in full-throated roar for this or that coach to be fired, for they’re not unlike you or me in the lives they lead and the responsibilities they bear away from the rink or the field or the court.

Did Therrien deserve to be fired? Sports is the last meritocracy, it seems, and winning is the standard. By that standard, Therrien was not meeting expectations. But that aside, Michel Therrien is a statistic this morning. He’s unemployed. Evidence of his being coach of the Penguins has already been expunged from the Penguin web site – it’s Dan Bylsma’s team. But it might be well for Penguin fans to thank Therrien in their thoughts for having resuscitated a foundering franchise and to remember that whatever his faults as a coach – and a reasonable person could find them – he was a guy going to work every day to do a job. And while the remaining compensation on his contract will make his unemployment more tolerable than that being faced by so many these days, we can’t imagine getting fired is any less bitter or humiliating at Therrien’s level than it might be among the less famous among us who suffer that fate.

Good luck, Mike.


this space for rent said...

I've been wondering at the glee that some Caps fans have been showing over this firing. I honestly don't think it'll help the Penguins, and it might make things worse. The Penguins' problem is not their coach, it's their dressing room, I think. I think there's a lack of leadership and teamwork there. Can you point to anyone on that team and say "that's the guy that holds the team together?" I can't. It's not Crosby - he tried and just doesn't have the mojo. Not his fault, he's too young.

Maybe the players need to be looking at themselves, just like Ottawa. I honestly feel a little bad for Therrien, myself - I think he's just a scapegoat.

Biff said...

"[H]e’s a guy with the same sort of day-to-day concerns any of us would face, or have to face, with the loss of a job."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't the Pens still on the hook for his salary for the 2+ remaining years on his contract? Would that we could all get 2 years paid vacation as reward for failing as badly at our jobs.

Eli said...

With a healthy blueline, the Pens had a playoff team this year. The fact that their top defenseman to start the season had just come out of college can't have made it easy for anyone.

I don't think firing a good coach is going to turn much around. On the other hand, getting Gonchar back and picking up some more help at the deadline may easily make it look as if it did.

Having missed Gonch for so long, Pittsburgh should be in salary cap position to bid for some of the best pending UFAs out there.

In a simple, logical world, the loss of Hossa to free agency could make Shero less inclined to trade away the team's future for a pending UFA. In the sports world, the same pressure that brought him to fire a coach that brought his team to the finals could very well force him to trade away any hope for next year on the chance of getting to the finals again.

Of course, for poetic reasons, there's one pending UFA I'd love to see them trade for: elite backup goaltender Olaf Kolzig.

The Peerless said...

@Biff -- Yes, the Penguins are obligated to fulfill the last two years of Therrien's contract, which is why we noted that he is likely to find his unemployment more tolerable than others who have lost and will lose their jobs these days. I'm not sure anyone but a sports fan would call it a "paid vacation," though. Getting fired, from any job, is a rather traumatic experience.

exwhaler said...

>>"With a healthy blueline, the Pens had a playoff team this year. The fact that their top defenseman to start the season had just come out of college can't have made it easy for anyone."

The Capitals' blueline was decimated during the half of the season, missing guys like Green, Poti, and Schultz for long stretches. AHL veterans like Sloan, Helmer, and Collins took a ton of icetime, as did top defenseman prospect Karl Alzner. And during that stretch, in which they were also missing a sizable amount of their offense, they still won.

Dealing with adversity is part of the coaches' job description, and I never got the impression that Therrien could do that well (not impressed with his job in the Cup). In the end, that's what sank him.

Anonymous said...

Fire Peerless!

this space for rent: The word you are looking for is "Schadenfreude."

Hooks Orpik said...

Sorry I'm late to the party, good article Peerless.

It was pretty clear Therrien lost the locker-room. I don't think there was a "mutiny" as others might suggest, but clearly not many were sad to see him go. And doing 15-21-2, that was Therrien did in his last 38 games just doesn't cut it.

I thought they would at least let him finish out the season though.

Therrien deserves credit. He took a team still in a country-club mindset (on the ice, in the room, etc) and really instilled some discipline and structure. For that he has my gratitude.

I think you're right to suggest Shero's seat should be getting hot. And the Hossa trade has nothing to do with it-- Armstrong's a good 3rd liner but that's all, Christensen isn't skilled enough to be a Top 6 winger and Esposito is fluttering (and now hurt).

All in all I'm somewhat saddened to see Therrien dismissed; but it didn't seem like the boys were really giving his all for them and this move is probably the only slim chance to kickstart the team and make huge gains in a little amount of time.