By Budd Bailey
It’s a question that has launched a thousand books in sports: “Who is the greatest (insert subject here) of all time?”
The answer is usually a matter of opinion, but many have tried to come up with a way to define the method of determining the best ever (blank) by some sort of analytical system. It’s a way to take emotion and personal bias out of the equation.
The subject at hand here is professional hockey coach. Matthew Dibiase has come up with his own way of judging coaching performance, and he has applied those standards to the entire history of pro hockey.
The results come pouring out in the relatively large book, “Bench Bosses.” Sort-of-spoiler alert: The guy who came out first by a wide margin wrote the foreward to the book.
Dibiase has done plenty of freelance hockey writing over the years, a break from his day job with the National Archives in Philadelphia. He can tell by this piece of work that he’s smart and thorough.
Dibiase started with similar systems written for football coaches and baseball managers in other books. Then he did a little adapting so that the disappointing seasons counted negatively in the rankings; the others he studied stuck to achievements. Dibiase thought that came out better for hockey, as the sport has had some quirks over the years that required different standings – high percentage of teams making the playoffs, six-team leagues at times, and so on.
From there, you get a bunch of numbers for every pro major league coach in history, including rival leagues in the early days and the World Hockey Association in the 1970s. It’s therefore easy to come up with a ranking.
From there, Dibiase goes through the top 50 thoroughly. You could probably argue a few points on who should be where, but the author has a thorough recap of the those coaches who reached the top of their profession. Interviews and references from books and interviews are included along the way. It’s the best part of the book.
The final 175 pages or so are dedicated to what might be called “fun with numbers.” We have the ratings by decade, ratings for every coach, all-star selections by coach, head-to-head matchups, etc. The bottom 10 coaches even get a chapter; Rick Bowness earned the distinction of being at the bottom, although he certainly had some bad teams to work with.
The biggest flaw for a project like this might be that it’s tough to know how much of a team’s success is determined by talent and how much is determined by coaching. For example, in 2018-19, the St. Louis was in last place when the Blues’ season turned around after Craig Berube became the interim coach. Obviously, Berube has done something right. However, usually the issue isn’t so cut and dried.
In other words, it’s a chicken and the egg story. Were the Canadiens and Red Wings great teams because they were well coached, or was Scotty Bowman fortunate to be behind the bench with great players on his side? There’s no way of telling, and certainly some coaches never had a chance to excel because of circumstances surrounding their team. However, the good coaches tend to be looking down on the rest of the league quite frequently.
This probably could have have used a little editing. Some of the statistics in the back don’t come off as particularly useful or interesting. In addition, there are some high-powered words in the text that lost me, and Dibiase’s fondness for the Philadelphia Flyers’ teams of the 1970s seems out of place in what should be a dispassionate approach to the subject.
Still, “Bench Bosses” does an acceptable job of accomplishing its goal, and filling the reader in on some hockey history. That ought to earn a spot for it on some bookshelves of big hockey fans. Just keep in mind that this came out in 2015, so you’ll have to go elsewhere for updated numbers.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)