WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – During the NHL’s 96 seasons, 55 players have accumulated at least 2,000 penalty minutes. Six of those 55 players who spent more than 33 hours in penalty boxes went on to become head coaches.
Among those six men, Brendan Shanahan had seven seasons with 40 goals. Kevin Dineen and Rick Tocchet had five and four seasons, respectively, with 30 goals. Dale Hunter and Terry O’Reilly had nine and four seasons, respectively, with 20 goals. All mixed plenty of ability with considerable grit and are considered among the top 300 players ever.
Craig Berube, who’s seventh all-time with 3,149 penalty minutes, is in another category. Berube, who scored just 61 career goals while accumulating 200-plus penalty minutes in six of his 17 seasons and fought three Pittsburgh Penguins during his March 1987 debut with Philadelphia, is the only latter-day enforcer who became a head coach.
Tomorrow night, Berube, who played six of those 17 seasons and 419 of those 1,054 games for the Capitals, faces Washington for the first time as Philadelphia’s coach. The 47-year-old native of Calahoo, Alberta took over on Oct. 7 when the Flyers shockingly fired Peter Laviolette after a 0-3 start followed a non-playoff season in 2012-13.
Berube seems like an unlikely coach, but not to those who played with him for years.
“I hung around with Craig and Dale a lot and it was non-stop talking hockey,” said Caps goalie coach Olie Kolzig, who played for Washington throughout Berube’s two Caps tenures (1993-99 and 2000-01). “I can’t think of another player like Craig who’s become a head coach, but that shows you how much he studied the game. He protected his teammates and he was a fantastic guy in the room, a great guy to be around. When something needed to be said in the dressing room, Craig wouldn’t be afraid to say it. It wasn’t just about protecting your teammates. He actually wanted to learn the game. I’m happy for him.”
So is Caps assistant Calle Johansson, another teammate throughout Berube’s time in Washington.
“Craig deserves the chance,” said Johansson, who was considered an especially cerebral defenseman. “He’s done a great job as an assistant and as a coach down in the minors. For a player to stay in the league as long as he did, you have to be pretty damn smart. He didn’t score a lot of goals or points, but he could play. He was a great third or fourth liner that you could rely on. He was always there to back up his teammates. You have to be pretty smart to do that night in and night out, especially in the [more fight-filled] era [in which] he played.”
Those who spend much time around NHL players quickly realize that some of the toughest guys are also some of the sharpest. Neil Sheehy, a Harvard graduate, is now an attorney and agent. Alan May and Nick Kypreos, who succeeded Sheehy as Caps enforcers in the 1990s, have forged successful careers in broadcasting. Matt Hendricks, Washington’s resident fighter the past three seasons, was the go-to quote of choice for the media during his time in D.C.
“Craig was a very savvy guy,” said Caps coach Adam Oates, who played in Washington from 1997-2002. “He played a really difficult position for an incredibly long time. He’s got a lot of knowledge of the game. I didn’t think about him being a coach when we were playing, but I didn’t think that about myself either. But as soon as he started coaching [with Philadelphia’s top farm team in 2004], I thought he could be a [head] coach.”
After losing to Anaheim on Tuesday, the Flyers remained in the Metropolitan Division basement, but they’re 3-5 under Berube, a definite improvement from when he assumed command.
“I started here, I came back here, I love it here,” Berube said the day he was promoted from assistant. “My team’s going to play hard. They’re going to be competitive every night. They’re going to do what they have to do to win hockey games. We need to be competitive every shift. You’ve got to have everybody for team defense. It’s not one or two guys. It’s not relying on your goaltender. Everybody on the ice has to be accountable without the puck. When you’re accountable without the puck, good things happen either way.”
Just like good things have happened to the man who made sure that anyone who messed with his teammates would soon pay the price.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.