Flames’ Webster in unique Cup dilemma
CALGARY, AB -- It’s a unique dilemma that he and he alone faces.
Calgary Flames amateur scout Tom Webster has bounced ideas off the walls of his Windsor, ON homestead as to where his allegiance lies when the puck drops between the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday, the start of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
You see, it’s Webster and only Webster that can claim to have worked behind the bench of both Stanley Cup Final franchises as head coach.
“It’s unique,” admitted Webster, who now plies his trade in Ontario Hockey League rinks scouring over an endless number of junior-aged players in the search to find the next wave of talent that will populate the Flames roster.
“Actually, I went over the coaching lists of both teams and there was nobody alive, at this point anyways, that has been in my position. Looking at it, it’s kind of unique with all of the different coaches that have come through.
“I’m the only guy that has been able to say that I’ve coached both hockey clubs that are in the Stanley Cup Final.”
Webster’s claim started thanks in part to Hall-of-Famer Phil Esposito.
Hired by the Esposito during the 1986-87 campaign, the now 65-year-old native of Kirkland Lake, ON made his National Hockey League coaching debut behind the bench in New York after two years at the helm of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.
But an inner ear ailment sidetracked his NHL aspirations before they had a chance to take off.
“Unfortunately for myself, I ended up getting an ear problem after about the 14th or 15th game into the season and couldn’t fly,” recounted Webster, who as a player recorded 220 goals and 425 points in 352 games in the WHA and another 33 goals and 75 points in 102 NHL games with the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings.
“I asked Phil to take over and he did. Phil was adamant that he wanted me to stay on but according to the doctors at that time I was going to be unable to fly for the full year. I had to basically give up my coaching job with the Rangers and headed back to the Windsor Spitfires.”
He was delayed, but not deterred.
“It was very difficult at the time because you’re excited and you were putting in your time,” Webster said. “I felt I did it the right way by coaching in the minors, going to coach in juniors. I was in no hurry. The opportunity came around to coach in one of the major cities in all of hockey.
“I felt I was prepared to be able to handle the situation but unfortunately I picked up some kind of a virus that affected my inner ear.
“What an awful feeling. It felt like my head was going to explode.”
After two surgeries -- the first one didn’t take -- to correct what was identified as Perilymph Fistula, Webster was able to fly again both literally and figuratively.
And again, Esposito helped him with the opportunity.
“The Kings’ general manager was Rogie Vachon, who was good friends with Phil at that time and they had talked and Phil gave me a high recommendation which I certainly appreciated,” Webster said. “I went in and talked to Rogie and Mr. (Bruce) McNall, who was absolutely great with everybody.
“I had a chance to visit with Wayne Gretzky and a few other players like Luc Robitaille and loved the situation I was walking into and it gave me another opportunity to fulfill a lifelong goal.”
In 1989-90, his first year on the job, Webster’s Kings orchestrated a first-round upset of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Flames.
He followed it up with his best season behind the bench in 1990-91, when Webster finished as the runner-up to the Adams Trophy as the NHL’s coach of the year after guiding Los Angeles to a 46-24-10 record and a Smythe Division title.
It was just Webster’s second full season behind an NHL bench, and he masterfully guided the globe’s hottest sporting franchise.
“With Gretzky coming to LA, there was so much excitement throughout the hockey world with seeing the movie stars involved but also with the number of kids that were coming to the hockey games with parents and seeing how they were getting involved with the hockey team,” recounted Webster, who also served as an assistant for Team Canada in the 1991 Canada Cup.
“Before you would seldom see LA Kings jerseys out there and all of a sudden they were popping up everywhere, let alone LA but in Canada and around the world.
“That excitement that was generated and the excitement of seeing some star players coming forth, there were players people started identifying with that almost became celebrities themselves.”
Webster spent three seasons coaching Gretzky and the Kings, qualifying for the playoffs each and every year while compiling a 115-94-31 regular season record. He left the organization following the 1991-92 season with a .544 winning percentage, the best in Kings history.
Twenty-two years later, both his Rangers and his Kings are set to battle opposite each other for Lord Stanley’s prize.
And though he's 22 years removed from being behind the bench in Los Angeles, picking a team to root for is no easy task for Webster.
His heart remains close to both franchises to this day.
“I have a close relationship with (Rangers coach) Alain Vigneault in New York,” Webster admitted. “He was my assistant coach when I coached Canada’s National Junior team (in 1989). I have a great relationship with him as far as watching him and having success.”
“Of course with Darryl Sutter,” Webster started, “He was the guy who hired me to get into the scouting profession, which I absolutely love so you can see where I’m at with this.
“I was in LA a lot longer than I was in New York. I certainly have some friends that I love. I absolutely love Darryl Sutter. I’ve become part of the Sutter clan. One of my very, very good friends of course is Ronnie Sutter that I work with.
“Yep, that’s where I’ll be.
“My cheering is heading LA’s way.”