Ice Hockey

Paul Coffey – The Man who Never Wanted to Coach

There is no award in the National Hockey League that goes to the assistant coach “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team`s success”. Maybe there should be. If there was, at this point of the season, Paul Coffey of the Edmonton Oilers, the man who never wanted to coach in the first place, would be a very deserving candidate.

Rogers Place, November 12

The scene was, let’s just say, different, in the Oilers Hall of Fame Room, just off 104th Avenue, and right beside the Wayne Gretzky statue, on that Sunday in November. About five weeks ago.

The Edmonton Oilers had just fired head coach Jay Woodcroft, and his assistant Dave Manson, whose duty had been to coach the defencemen.

GM Ken Holland introduced the new head coach, Chris Knoblauch. Knoblauch, known as Connor McDavid’s coach in Junior, held a little speech. And then…

Holland jumped in to say that Paul Coffey will coach the Oilers’ defense.

“Paul is obviously the greatest defenceman in the history of the franchise,” he started. “He has been with the organization a number of years. Paul has watched every game, has a relationship with all of our players, especially our defencemen.”

“You guys have seen him around here”, said Ken Holland to the assembled media. “He really knows the team, and I think he’ll be really beneficial with Kris.”

And then came Paul Coffey’s turn to speak. The media wanted to know why the Hall of Fame defenceman wanted to become a coach, after working for the Oilers as a “Special Adviser to the owner Darryl Katz.”

That sounds like a title and a position any retired old NHL player would love to have. And never leave.

Turns out, “Coff”, as he is known around these parts, didn’t initially even want the job.

Oilers’ CEO Jeff Jackson had asked “would you ever think of coaching?”, just a few days earlier, and the answer was, “no, I’m very happy with my position”. Then the same question was presented again.

“As most of you know in this room,” said Coffey, “I’m very tied with the Oilers. I love the Oilers. All of us do.”

And he ended with: “Have I ever coached in the NHL? No. Do I understand the Game? Yes. Do I understand the players? Yes. Can I communicate with them? Absolutely.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

Number Seven

Paul Coffey, now 62 years old, owns four Stanley Cup rings. Three championships with the Edmonton Oilers, and one with the Pittsburgh Penguins. And he has been spotted wearing one of them on the bench this season.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005 and his number seven was retired by the Edmonton Oilers. Fans in the old Edmonton Coliseum got a chance to see him skate one more time in full Oilers uniform that night. Coffey was on his own planet as a skater, with Bobby Orr and another Oilers champion, Reijo Ruotsalainen.

Paul Coffey owns a litany of NHL records for defencemen. The list is long, highlighted by most regular season and playoff goals by a defenceman (455), most goals by a defenceman in a single season (48), most 40-goal seasons by a defenceman (two), and most career playoff points by a defenceman (196).

Coffey played 21 seasons and is second in all-time scoring among defencemen with 1,531 points in 1,409 games. Three Norris trophies. 14 All-Star games.

Paul Coffey was, at a time when many junior phenoms were supposed to be the next Bobby Orr, as close as you could get to Bobby Orr. Edmonton Oilers drafted him 6th overall in 1980. He showed up at his first NHL training camp and tried to prove his defensive worth.

Coach Glen Sather quickly talked the teenage defenceman out of that, and told him the Oilers wanted him for his rushing ability.

“The shy, young Coffey. The Rookie”, wrote the legendary Peter Gzowski in “The Game of Our Lives”. “They expect wonders from him. So far, however, he seems bottled up, as tense on the ice as he is reticent off it. He first came to Edmonton over the summer with his agent Gus Badali, whom he shares with Gretzky.”

“In the limousine that picked them up at the airport and drove them downtown, he said not a word, staring at the Edmonton skyline as if it were Babylon. At training camp he looked unsure of himself, although he is such a fluid skater he is obviously capable at any moment of living up to his promise.”

In his fourth NHL season, the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup, and Coffey had 40 goals and 126 points. In his fifth season, he broke Bobby Orr’s record of 46 goals for a defenceman with 48.

In his early years, Paul Coffey was always criticized for his defensive play. Very much like his protege Evan Bouchard is criticized today. One play helped to diffuse that criticism in the 1984 Canada Cup.

In the semifinal game against the Soviet Union, Coffey broke the two-on-one rush, featuring Russian forwards Vladimir Kovin and Mihail Varnakov. Coffey controlled the puck and made the play for Mike Bossy’s overtime-winning goal.

His days in Edmonton ended with a failed contract controversy with Sather who traded him to Pittsburgh. Coffey joined a talented Penguins team led by Mario Lemieux and won his fourth Stanley Cup in 1991.

Paul Coffey played with Wayne Gretzky in his prime, Mario Lemieux in his prime, and Steve Yzerman in his prime.

Scotty Bowman later brought him to Detroit and traded him to Hartford for Brendan Shanahan. In his later years, Paul Coffey was a hired gun with stops in Philadelphia, Chicago, Carolina, and Boston.

He retired in 2001. A year later, Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky hired him as a special teams consultant. Later he owned and still owns a Toyota dealership, a Kia dealership, a car wash, and a storage facility in his hometown of Bolton, near Toronto.

He got back into hockey occasionally. Assistant coach with Canada`s 2020 Spengler Cup team. He coached U15 and U16 AAA teams in Toronto, and Junior A Pickering Panthers, each for one season. The Oilers hired him as a skills coach. And then the mysterious senior position as “special adviser to the owner”.

The Paul Coffey Effect

There was no lack of doubters when Paul Coffey took over the Oilers’ defense five weeks ago. “How could a man with no coaching experience at a pro level even think he can do this?” “Typical Edmonton Oilers move”. And on and on.

Lately, all of those voices have been awfully quiet.

Turns out, a cup of “Coffey” was just what the Oilers’ defence core needed. Maybe some of the doubters were not even around when Paul Coffey was skating in the National Hockey League. Maybe they are not familiar with his personality.

Maybe they didn’t know that Paul Coffey has probably forgotten more about hockey than most of them will ever know.

The fundamentals. Coffey often talks about the fundamentals. “The good teams work on it every day and still let their teams play”, he told The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler. “I see some guys coming around the net and they can´t make a stick-to-stick pass to the winger.”

Coffey pointed to Jon Cooper’s Lightning and Rod Brind’Amour’s Hurricanes as examples of teams that give their players freedom but play with fundamentals. “The teams that win championships, and this will never change, are the ones that are fundamentally strong.”


Oilers just put together an eight-game winning streak. The franchise record is nine. They are not totally out of the hole yet, but this team will make the playoffs. They are getting contributions from the entire line-up.

The new coaches have given the players a process, instilled confidence, and then let them go. That is how you coach talent. These are very good hockey players. And this applies especially to the defense. When earlier in the season the defencemen would have the puck on their sticks, and almost look like they didn’t know what to do, or have the confidence, now the transition game is fast.

Now, the outlet passes come out quickly, but after that extra second, it takes to make a good proper play to the forward’s stick. The puck travels through the neutral zone fast and the opponents are on their toes. Edmonton Oilers have the forwards who can turn those transition situations into dangerous plays.

It turns out the Oilers` defencemen have learned from their new coach Paul Coffey. “Coff” has them making plays, minding the gap. Turns out Edmonton’s much-maligned defence is playing well. All, from one to six.

Coffey has been a calming influence. “He spends a lot of time telling his players to do the little things. Keep moving the puck, moving your feet, get up ice, a lot of skating. Just trying to simplify and calm them down. You have seen the effect his presence has back there.”, said Chris Knoblauch on Hockey Night in Canada.

Darnell Nurse has been playing the best hockey of his career in the last month. The best example of game simplified. Mattias Ekholm, after recovering from whatever made him miss training camp, is back to top Viking form. Cody Ceci is playing well.

In the third pairing, Brett Kulak looks like he is very fast. Big Vinny Desharnais plays with confidence. And then there’s Evan Bouchard.


The Edmonton Journal ran a picture recently that featured Edmonton Oilers offensive blueliner Evan Bouchard on the ice, with his coach, and the best offensive defenceman in Oilers history, Paul Coffey.

The interesting thing is, that picture was not recent. It was taken five years ago at the 2018 Edmonton Oilers development camp in the downtown community arena in Rogers Place. The 18-year-old Bouchard had just been drafted out of the Ontario League London Knights a few weeks earlier, in the first round, 10th overall.

Turns out Paul Coffey has known and believed in, Evan Bouchard for a long time. It didn’t happen overnight. It took stops in Edmonton, back in London, Bakersfield, Södertälje, and some press box time in Edmonton, before we got to today.

As this column is being written, the now 24-year-old Bouchard is living up to his promise. Third in Defencemen Scoring in the NHL, after Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar. Ahead of the very underrated Noah Dobson and Victor Hedman. That is some very good company.

Ken Holland made a bold move when he traded away Tyson Barrie. Barrie’s spot on the Oilers’ historically good power play was given to Evan Bouchard. Now, the “Bouch Bomb” is a weapon on the point. The shot has been measured at almost a hundred miles an hour.

At that speed, the puck will either hit the goaltender or hit the net. It comes too fast for a human to be able to make a save.

The game belongs to the players

So, a 62-year-old man with a total of three years experience of coaching teenagers has helped turn around one of the Stanley Cup candidate teams in the National Hockey League.

All this talk about how the Game has changed so much, and how some people can not keep up with it, turns out to be, for lack of a better word, bullshit. Just the terms have changed, the Game is the same.

“Everybody today keeps saying these kids are different”, said Coffey in the above-mentioned Scott Wheeler interview.

“They’re not different. You just have to talk to them”.

Paul Coffey does not operate with an agenda. He has none. His agenda is the team.

And “Coff” knows you can never take the game away from the players. The players are the ones who decide. You just have to have them believing and not suck the life out of them. Simple. Several Oiler defencemen have spoken about how Coffey likes to emphasize the positive.

You can make a mistake. You don’t have to tell a professional hockey player he made one. These players got to this level for a reason. They are great hockey players. Or great “f…ing” players, as Coffey puts it.

“I’m a positive guy. I’m a fan. I’m a fan of the game. I also know that the game’s not perfect”, he told reporter Daniel Nugent-Bowman.

“The only thing I expect is plays. If you can`t make them, we`ll get somebody else. It`s plain and simple. I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make them better. If you can’t make the plays, just put your hand up and tell me. We`ll get somebody else who can. That’s nice, right?”

That’s very nice.

It seems the Oilers players kinda like their defense coach Paul Coffey.

Maybe there should be a trophy for the best assistant coach of the year.

“The Rick Bowness Award?”

Not sure how Bones would feel about that.

Jouni Nieminen, Edmonton

X: @OnsideWithJouni
Facebook: Jouni Niemisen NHL
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