Ranking the 5 Greatest Coaches in Detroit Red Wings History
Coaches can represent the difference between triumphant victory and agonizing defeat. The Detroit Red Wings have seen their share of both.
Throughout their rich 87-year history, the Detroit franchise has enjoyed an abundance of successful seasons as well as decades of misery. Their coaching history has been just as polarizing, from the success of Scotty Bowman to the catastrophe of Ned Harkness.
Detroit has had the luxury of having just three coaches behind the bench for the last two decades, and has made the playoffs in every one of them. Their success has parlayed into four Stanley Cup titles in six appearances in a 14-year stretch from the 1994-95 season through 2008-09.
Detroit has won 11 Stanley Cups with five different coaches, and it’s no coincidence that this list contains exactly five coaches. Three of the five on this list won three Stanley Cups behind the Detroit bench while consistently battling for NHL supremacy.
It’s nearly a staple for Detroit coaches to demand a lot from their players, and not without a fiery personality. These coaches knew what it took to win, and even if they weren’t favored by players, they commanded respect.
So, without further ado, here are the five greatest coaches in Detroit Red Wings history.
5. Jimmy Skinner
Very few head coaches can boast the immediate success that Jimmy Skinner enjoyed as the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.
Skinner’s tough style of coaching leaned heavily on team captains and veteran players, and was known to be intense during games. In a New Year’s Day game against Montreal, league president Clarence Campbell went to the Detroit bench to warn Skinner about his players' foul language—Skinner told him off.
Skinner took over a complacent championship team in the 1954-55 season after Tommy Ivan left to be the general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks. He provided the necessary spark to lead Detroit to the club’s seventh Stanley Cup and second repeat appearance. Skinner had coached in the Ontario Hockey Association prior to receiving the Detroit position without any pro-level experience.
Lead by Skinner’s diligence, Detroit overtook the dominant Montreal Canadiens for first place at the end of the season with a nine-game winning streak, and would defeat the same Canadiens in seven games to capture the Cup.
Detroit went to three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals from 1954-56, the last two under Skinner. He defeated Dick Irvin’s Canadiens in 1955, but would be no match for Hector “Toe” Blake’s Montreal team the following year that ripped off a record five straight titles.
He is also recognized for inaugurating the tradition of kissing the Stanley Cup.
Skinner isn't particularly well-known with modern Red Wing fans, but he certainly has his place in Red Wing lore as a main contributor to the opulent history of Hockeytown.
4. Mike Babcock
After two disappointing playoff exits under coach Dave Lewis, the Detroit Red Wings returned from the 2005 NHL lockout with a new man behind the bench; Mike Babcock.
Babcock was notorious in Detroit as the coach of the upstart Mighty Ducks of Anaheim who swept the defending champion Red Wings in the Western Conference Quarterfinals in 2003—in his first year as an NHL head coach.
It didn't take Babcock long to return Detroit to glory, winning the Stanley Cup in his third year as coach.
He inherited a very talented club, but has maintained the club’s winning culture over the course of his time in the Motor City. He is currently in his ninth season behind the Detroit bench, posting a remarkable 391-182-85 record.
During his tenure in Hockeytown, Babcock has led the team to two Presidents’ Trophy titles and a Stanley Cup championship in 2007-08. His 2008-09 Red Wings—along with the their opponent the Pittsburgh Penguins—became the first teams to play in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals since the New Jersey Devils in 2000 and 2001.
Babcock has been just another excellent head coach for the Detroit Red Wings, and still has plenty of time to work his way up to the level of our top three.
3. Tommy Ivan
Another legend in Detroit, Tommy Ivan is almost personally responsible for a majority of the banners that hang in Joe Louis Arena.
A three-time Stanley Cup winner with Detroit, Ivan took the coaching job in 1947 and immediately worked to develop the farm system. His system helped grow hockey legends Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk.
Ivan returned Detroit to the finals for three straight years from 1948-1950 when the third time proved to be the charm, defeating the New York Rangers in seven games. From 1947-1954, Ivan would lead Detroit to five finals appearances and three titles (1950, 1952, 1954).
Ivan was a brilliant hockey mind, but when he knew there was no room for advancement with Jack Adams as general manager, he took the GM job with the Chicago Blackhawks. Jimmy Skinner was his successor as head coach.
At just 5’5”, Ivan radiated a level of strength that well surpassed his size and had a way of making younger players work. He had a philosophy that stemmed from working them hard early in the morning, conditioning them to get to bed early the night before.
He earned the respect of his players and peers, which was recognized with his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.
2. Jack Adams
Ten seasons into their existence, the Detroit Red Wings captured their first Stanley Cup under the direction of legendary coach Jack Adams.
Adams won the best-of-five series 3-1 over the Toronto Maple Leafs for the franchise’s very first championship in 1936. They would return to the finals the following season and defeat the New York Rangers in five games to secure their first set of back-to-back championships.
Detroit was also the first American-based team to win successive Stanley Cups.
Ultimately, the team would win three Stanley Cups with Adams behind the bench before he would step down in 1947 to focus on his responsibilities as general manager. As the GM, Adams would see his team win four Cups in the 1950’s. He is the only individual in NHL history to have won the Cup as a player, head coach and general manager.
Adams was known for his boisterous and impetuous personality and behavior. In Game 4 of the 1942 Stanley Cup Final, Adams disagreed with penalties and went into a rampage in which he ultimately hit an official, resulting in a suspension for the remainder of the series.
He is also responsible for finding and signing Gordie Howe, arguably the greatest Red Wing of all time.
Adams' achievements led to the NHL naming a trophy in his honor, awarded annually to the coach of the year.
Adams did have his run-ins with players, but overall, his coaching and eye for talent built Detroit into an American hockey powerhouse. He set the precedence for Detroit’s winning pedigree.
1. Scotty Bowman
Scotty Bowman was the integral piece to the success in Hockeytown in the 1990s.
The NHL’s winningest coach took over the Detroit Red Wings before the 1993-94 season, and his two-way style of hockey turned a high-powered offense into a complete hockey club. In his second season with Detroit, Bowman led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup Final where they were swept by the New Jersey Devils.
The following season, Bowman led Detroit to an NHL-record 62 wins and 131 points. Bowman would lead the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup Final appearances in eight years, winning three. His Red Wings remain the last team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in 1997 and 1998.
With 1,244 victories and a .654 career winning percentage, Bowman is the all-time winningest coach in NHL history. His nine Stanley Cup titles as a coach are also most all time. Bowman went on top, retiring immediately after winning the 2002 title.
Bowman helped mold a gifted team offensively—with the likes of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov—into a well-rounded club that could control the puck at both ends of the ice. His contributions made his team a championship contender every season he stood behind the bench.
One of the five Red Wings coaches to win the Cup, as well as one of three to earn three titles, Bowman’s legacy is another celebrated era in Detroit’s profound hockey history.