By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw John Muckler in person.
It was on November 12, 1989 in Memorial Auditorium. I was working for the Buffalo Sabres’ public relations department then, and the Edmonton Oilers were in town. It was Muckler’s first year as head coach after taking over from Glen Sather.
It was a classic, back-and-forth game. Buffalo had a 5-3 lead with six minutes to go, but couldn’t hold it. It looked as if the game was headed to overtime. Then, Dave Andreychuk scored for the Sabres in the final second to give them the 6-5 win. I checked the replay before leaving the press box, and it seemed quite clear to me that the goal deserved to count. I went down to the locker room area at that point. When I got there, I had the chance to see Muckler in full rage over the call, seemingly beyond the point of rational behavior. I thought, it must be interesting to work with this guy all the time.
In less than two years, Muckler was working for the Sabres. I spent time working with him as a team employee through 1992, and then dealt with him in covering the team for the Associated Press and The Buffalo News through 1997.
And yes, it was always interesting.
Muckler was a classic hockey lifer. He was a defenseman in Canadian junior hockey, and then made it to the pros – although the Eastern Hockey League at that time was the bottom rung on the ladder. What you have to remember about the EHL is that people had to fight for everything at that level – their jobs, fair treatment from officials and management, the right paycheck, etc. Sometimes they had to use their fists to do so. You could take Muckler out of the EHL, but you couldn’t take the EHL out of Muckler.
There was nothing Muckler liked to do more than sit around and tell stories about John Brophy and the Eastern League days. One time John was sitting in the media lounge before a game, and game time was approaching. The reporters at the table were surprised enough that he was sitting with them, let alone for so long. So they were more surprised when Muckler looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got time for one more story about Brophy.”
Muckler did some coaching in the Eastern League, and he slowly worked his way up the ladder in that field. He was named the North Stars’ coach in 1968-69, only to have a bad team that started 6-23-6. That led to unemployment – for a little while. Muckler was the coach of the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, a former rival of the Buffalo Bisons for decades, when the team moved to Jacksonville in 1973. It was on to Providence, Dallas and Wichita from there.
Up to the majors
Finally, Sather hired him as an assistant coach in Edmonton in 1982. That meant he was a big part of the Oilers’ dynasty of the 1980s. That was the most powerful offensive machine in hockey history, with such names as Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Coffey, Anderson, etc. on the roster. It was John’s pick for the best team ever; we debated that issue once casually (I took the Canadiens of the late 1970s).
Sather kicked himself upstairs in 1989, and Muckler took over. Gretzky was gone, but some of the parts of the dynasty were still left. The veterans still knew what to do, and they received help from forward Craig Simpson (15 goals in 16 playoff games) and goalie Bill Ranford. By the summer of 1990, Muckler had a Cup of his own.
After a .500 season in 1990-91, Muckler jumped to the Sabres to take the job as director of hockey operations. When he was hired he was asked his age. “Double nickels,” he answered, as in 55 years old. When an Oilers’ representative heard that, he said, “Oh, is he doing that again?” It was always good to be a couple of years younger than you really were in the hockey business.
The master plan for the Sabres was for general manager Gerry Meehan to move further upstairs while Muckler became general manager. That eventually happened in 1993, but late in 1991 John took over as the Sabres’ coach when the team stopped responding to Rick Dudley’s coaching. Muckler wasn’t happy about the new assignment, but he did it.
There are a few stories about Muckler from that first year that are still vivid. One time Dave Kerner and I were talking to him casually after practice. Dave asked about the trade of an NHL veteran that had just happened, and John said, “Off the record?” Dave said, “Yes, off the record.” Muckler smiled and said, “Biggest cancer in the league.” We all laughed, and as we left Dave said, “Way to go, Mucks.”
Later in that season, the Sabres’ official team photo was taken right after the trading deadline – which is standard procedure in hockey. The players and coaches gathered for that picture. Then Muckler did something unusual. He had the players and coaches pose for a photo with all of the front office staff members. This had never happened before in my tenure. The organization’s members sometimes were treated like office furniture in those days, and this was a rare gesture of appreciation. I told John later that it was the classiest move I had seen in my six years with the team. Yes, I still have the photo. (See above)
Muckler did a good job with that Sabres’ team in 1992, getting them to the playoffs. Buffalo gave Boston a great series, only to lose Game Seven on a third-period goal by Dave Reid. Years later, Muckler still didn’t miss a chance to casually put down Tom Draper for giving up Reid’s goal. John had a long memory.
The Sabres decided to build up the roster from there in an effort to build support for a new arena, and Muckler’s influence was apparent in the roster. If you played for him on one of the Cup teams in Edmonton, you were his friend for life. The 1993 team might have had a long playoff run had Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny, Grant Fuhr, etc. been able to stay healthy. Muckler became general manager/coach in the summer of 1993, but that high-priced team never was able to put all of the pieces together. It lost to New Jersey in 1994, and then imploded in a playoff loss to Philadelphia in 1995.
A fresh approach
The Sabres’ management wanted to tear things down and start over, and Muckler – who wanted to stay employed – did exactly that as he gave up his coaching duties to stay as a GM. The “highlight” came when he traded Mogilny to Vancouver for Michael Peca, Mike Wilson and Jay McKee – a very good return under the circumstances. Buffalo had a poor 1995-96 season, but the 1996-97 team surprised everyone by winning the division. It won with a great goalie in Dominik Hasek and without Muckler and coach Ted Nolan being on the same book, let alone the same page.
It was a heck of a rebuilding job, and Muckler was rewarded when he was named NHL Executive of the Year by the Sporting News. Larry Wigge was the hockey editor of that publication, and he had called Muckler to tell him the news one Monday night right after the end of Buffalo’s playoff run. Wigge said Muckler was quite grumpy during the call, and he couldn’t figure out why. Then Larry found out on Tuesday morning why – Muckler had been fired by the Sabres.
I was around John quite a bit while covering his Sabres for The News from 1994 to 1997. Yes, there were times when he’d be in no mood to talk to anyone, including me, after a loss. As PR director Jeff Holbrook said to me, “You know there will be a few games each year like that.” Sometimes the answers were such obvious attempts at spinning bad news that I couldn’t justify putting them in the newspaper. I even got Muckler’s famous finger-pointing treatment on a team charter over something insignificant once, which prompted someone else to say, “Welcome to the club.”
On the other hand, I saw the good sides of Muckler as well. One time he was in the middle of a spirited speech about how well the rebuilding program was going, and he rattled off the names of several young players who were the subject of trade inquiries from other teams – Derek Plante, Brian Holzinger, Peca, McKee, Jason Dawe. I interrupted and said, “Maybe you ought to listen to the calls about Dawe.” He paused, gave a big smile, and said, “He hasn’t been playing very well lately, has he?
I’d love to sit with Muckler in other rinks and ask him about specific memories to those buildings. In Calgary during a morning skate, he gave me a complete recap of a dramatic overtime goal by Team Canada in the 1984 Canada Cup semifinal, featuring a Mike Bossy tip of a Coffey shot. And then there was the odd gesture, like the time we were waiting to go to the rink in Philadelphia, and a homeless man was standing outside the bus. Muckler got out of the bus, stuffed a $20 bill in the man’s pocket, and went back in the bus.
After leaving Buffalo in 1997, he said he had offers to be a coach and a general manager from some teams. He took over the Rangers as coach in the middle of the 1997-98 season, and couldn’t get above .500 in two years. Then it was on to Ottawa as GM from 2002 to 2007. It was a lively time in Senators’ history, featuring a bankruptcy in 2003 and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. The Eastern Leaguer got one final reminder in the summer of 2007 that nothing could ever be taken for granted. Senators owner Larry Melnyk decided to promote Bryan Murray from coach to general manager, and Muckler refused to accept any other assignment within the organization.
By any standard, it was a unique career in hockey. It touched every level of the game, and had several amazing moments along the way. We lost an irreplaceable figure when Muckler died on Monday night at the age of 86 (we think). He made the game of hockey, yes, a more interesting place.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)