The Real Muck: How John Muckler learned to relaxed (a wee bit) and become a Stanley Cup champion coach

The Real Muck: How John Muckler learned to relaxed (a wee bit) and become a Stanley Cup champion coach

Author of the article:

David Staples  •  Edmonton Journal

Publishing date:

Jan 07, 2021  •   •  7 minute read

Former Oilers coaches John Muckler, left and Glen Sather watch video highlights of past glory moments on an overhead screen at the Heritage Classic on Nov. 21, 2003. Photo by File /Postmedia

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I did not know John Muckler well but I knew plenty about him, mainly because in January 1986 I wrote a length profile of Muckler, then 51 and the Oilers co-coach, for the Edmonton Journal’s Sunday Brunch section.

I was a second year reporter for the Journal at the time, just 23 years old, and had the job of my dreams,  main profile writer for my hometown paper’s weekend section, a job that saw me write lengthy profiles over the years on everyone from architect Douglas Cardinal, artist Alex Janvier, and politician Laurence Decore to artist Daphne Odjig, wrestling boss Stu Hart and Eskimo’s football GM Hugh Campbell.

In that time, I was every bit as avid an Oilers fan as I am now, maybe even more so, as that was the time before Wayne Gretzky got sold out of Edmonton in 1988, forever tarnishing my affinity for the NHL.

For Sunday Brunch in those days, I wrote major profiles of Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, “Badger” Bob Johnson, Glenn Anderson and also John Muckler.

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I can’t find a digital copy of my Muckler piece, but I have a hard copy of it from an old scrap book. Today, I thought I’d share a few of the most interesting parts now that Muckler has died at the age of 86.

Don Cherry: “Who’s John Muckler?”

In his time as a hockey man, Muckler had an ongoing feud with Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry.

Early in the 1985-86 season, Muckler took a shot at Cherry, reminding reporters that while Cherry was coaching in Boston he blew perhaps the biggest game of his career with a too many men on the ice penalty against the Canadiens in the 1979 playoffs.

The 1980s were the peak of Cherry’s fame and popularity, when he had something relevant to say about hockey the way it was being played at that moment. He was quite the force and one night he decided to direct heavy fire at Muckler.

Cherry said that Muckler was nothing but a minor-league talent who had lucked his way into success with the then two-time champion Oilers.

“Who’s John Muckler,” Cherry snarled derisively.

Edmonton Journal 1986 story on John Muckler

My article on Muckler dug into that question, looking first at Muckler’s youth where he was pushed hard by his father George, a sales agent for the CPR Express and Telegraph, who always used to tell his sons John and Bill: “I don’t care what you do with your life. Just give it 100 per cent. If you don’t, it’s not worth it.”

All John ever wanted to be growing up in Paris, Ontario was a hockey player. He only ever had minor league talent, as he was too slow on his skates. But he was a dedicated and clever player. He moved up the hockey chain from Windsor to Galt to Guelph to Belleville to Baltimore to Charlotte of the Eastern Hockey League, where he got cut at age 26. Along the way he met and married his wife, Audrey.

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John told her his whole life was hockey and it was all he knew.

“John took hockey much too seriously,” Audrey told me. “I can remember him when we were first married and we lost a game and we went to a house party, just sitting there, and we’d be the last ones to leave because John would run through that game so many times. ‘Well, what could we have done,’ he’s day. He couldn’t get over a bad game. He just couldn’t relax.”

Muckler wasn’t much for old school coaching, where intimidation was part of the game. “The majority would try to coach through intimidation rather than teaching,” he said to me. “As a player you never asked too many questions. You’d say, ‘Whatever you say, coach.’ These coaches would scream and holler a lot and they’d put great demands on you, like, ‘If you don’t win the next five games, there’s going to be some hockey players released from the hockey club.’ Talk about pressure! Some players would be wound up so tight that they just couldn’t do anything properly.”

At 27, Mucker quit playing to become coach and GM of the Long Island Ducks in the Eastern league. There he got the attention of New York Rangers GM Emile ‘The Cat’ Francis, who hired Muckler as a talent evaluator.

Muckler came to style himself after the Cat, the most driven man he’d ever met. And he quickly advanced, getting the job of coaching the Minnesota North Stars in 1969 when he was just 35-years-old. He replaced a coach half-way through the season, but then was fired himself two months later.

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“I was in heaven when I got the job,” Muckler said. “But I slowly realized that I wasn’t qualified. I kind of blame Minnesota for rushing me. That’s the bitter part. I lacked experience, knowledge. I didn’t have good personnel to to work with and they needed an experienced person, not so much to teach fundamentals but to be able to handle the veterans. They didn’t need a teacher to walk into that dressing room and come up with new ideas which the players weren’t going to accept anyway. As I said before, you coached through intimidation. There were no philosophies, or styles of play, or systems, or ways to improve your players. If you got mad at somebody you just shipped him to the minors.”

Muckler was back in the minors for the next dozen years, in Iowa, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Providence, Dallas and Wichita. He also scouted for Vancouver. And his teams often did well. He won coaching awards. But he kept getting passed over for NHL jobs, often for younger coaches.

“I was terribly upset when all these younger guys came in,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why did I go through all this? If you’re 45 or 46, forget all about your experiences. You’re Old School. You’re old hat. Times have passed you by. You’ll never be able to coach in the modern era of hockey.’ Which didn’t make any sense to me at all.”

In the late 1970s, Glen Sather started to put together the most revolutionary team that the NHL has likely ever seen, one built on high hockey IQ, incredible talent, offence, offence and more offence, and Sather’s immense self-confidence.

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Sather had hired the experienced and tough-minded Muckler in 1982 as an assistant, after Muckler had coached the Oilers farm team in Wichita for a year. But when he first came to the Oilers, Muckler was startled by what he saw with Sather’s Oilers. On the phone, he’d tell Audrey, “Sather’s making a mockery of this thing. He was just lucky.”

I asked Muckler about this period.

“At first,” he said, “I didn’t know whether the things I saw being done in that organization were really the way they should be done. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to accept it in my own mind. It was so relaxed!”

But over time, Muckler came to appreciate Sather’s methods. “Glen doesn’t over-react like most people do. I know I over-react in situations and put pressure on myself. I’m learning not to do that because when you do that to yourself you apply the same pressure to everybody around you. Glen’s the most assured person I think I’ve ever known in my life.”

Muckler was given a lot of latitude to do things his own way under Sather, and soon became co-coach of the team. His job was to teach players the Oilers system of play and to push for high standards of excellence and innovation.

As for his feud with Cherry, Muckler said he’d made the comments about Cherry to rile up his old minor league rival. The two used to coach against one another.

When Cherry came on television and started to bomb away at Muckler, Muckler, then watching the game in his apartment with asst. coach Bob McCammon, turned to McCammon and said, “I finally did it!”

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“I was just roaring,” Muckler said. “I mean, Cherry lost his total cool. As far as I’m concerned he made a jackass of himself in front of millions of people.”

By the time I talked to Muckler, he ahd helped coach his superstar players to two Stanley Cups and one Canada Cup win over the Russians. His wife Audrey had hoped after winning so much that he’d finally relax a bit, and after his Canada Cup win she asked him about it.

Audrey Muckler in 2014

“You have everything, John,” she said. “You reached the ultimate goal in your life and won it. My God, John! And now the Canada Cup (and he was so drained after that one he couldn’t even talk!). You have won everything. This is it. What can you do now?”

Muckler looked at Audrey and said, “You just win. But you win better. I’ll just have to learn to make it better.  I have to make sure that these guys who are playing this game right now don’t get too easy about this winning because they. have everything. They have things I never, ever dreamed of having when I was their age and I have to make sure that they don’t think that’s enough.”

Audrey told me she had then resigned herself to her fate. “He’s right back to Square One. He’s the same before games now as he was when he was coaching in the Eastern Hockey League and fighting for a playoff position. So I’ll just give up and just go with it. This is the way he’s going to be the rest of his life.”

Muckler spent over 2,000 NHL games as either a coach or in management, working in Buffalo, New York, Ottawa, and Phoenix.

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