Bob Pulford can’t help but think that he may have had something to do with it.
Sixteen of the players that Pulford coached when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks and before that with the Los Angeles Kings have gone on to become coaches or general managers (sometimes both) in the National Hockey League.
“You wonder what influence I had on all those players,” pondered Pulford, speaking from his Northfield home where he and his wife, Roslyn, have lived since becoming Chicagoans in the summer of 1977. “It had to be something. They all went on and stayed in hockey and some have been very successful.”
Although son-in-law Dean Lombard has achieved success as the general manager in Los Angeles and earlier in San Jose, Pulford takes no credit for the accomplishments of the husband of his daughter, Wandamae. “Dean never played for me and I had no influence on him,” Pulford said. “He has done it on his own.”
The most successful of Pully’s pupils are five former Blackhawks—Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter, Anaheim General Manager Bob Murray, Florida General Manager Dale Tallon, San Jose General Manager Doug Wilson, and Montreal General Manager Marc Bergevin. Sutter’s Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2014 and 2010, and Calgary captured the Cup in 2004 when he was the Flames coach and general manager. Before becoming the Ducks executive vice president and general manager, Murray was their senior vice president of hockey operations and played a pivotal role in their 2007 Stanley Cup championship season. The following year he was promoted to GM, and at the end of the 2013-14 season, he was voted the NHL’s General Manager of the Year. Last season, it took the Hawks the maximum seven games to turn back the Ducks in the Western Conference finals. When Tallon was the Blackhawks GM, he drafted and traded for many of the players who formed the nucleus of their 2010, 2013, and 2015 Stanley Cup championship teams. Wilson’s Sharks were Western Conference finalists in 2004, 2010, and 2011, and Bergevin’s Canadiens were Eastern Conference finalists in 2014. Another of Pulford’s players in Chicago, Mike O’Connell, later became Boston’s general manager for nearly six seasons and five others spent time as NHL coaches: Curt Fraser, Steve Ludzik, the late Keith Magnuson, Ed Olczyk, and Denis Savard.
Four of Pully’s pupils during the four years he coached the Los Angeles Kings would later become NHL coaches—Bob Berry, Butch Goring, Dan Maloney, and Bob Murdoch—and another of his ex-Kings, Rogie Vachon, subsequently spent seven years as their GM.
“I had [Pulford] so many years as a coach and/or general manager,” Murray reflected. “As a coach, he would come and go, come and go, come and go. He was always working, always thinking. He was always trying to teach you something whether he was coaching you on the ice or as the GM, and you’d go in to see him.
“He was a teacher. You have to teach different people different ways, and he was very good at that. He built foundations for your career, things that are always there.”
Olczyk played for five other NHL teams after beginning his career as a teenager with the Hawks in 1984 and ending it with them in 2000, but, in his opinion, Pulford was one of a kind. “Pully was the best coach I ever played for,” said Olczyk, who now is considered the sport’s foremost TV analyst. “He had a presence; that is the one thing I remember most. He had a really good feel for the game and a lot of intensity.
“For sure, Pully was old-school, and there was constructive criticism and tough love—‘Get your head out of your rear end!’—but there was another side of him. When you did well he would acknowledge it—‘Great play! Good backcheck!’ You always knew exactly where you stood. That’s what separated him from other coaches I played for.
“It made a huge impression on me as a player, as a coach during the time I was in Pittsburgh, and now as a broadcaster.”
The teams Pulford coached never made it to the Stanley Cup Final. In Los Angeles, where he ended his playing career in 1972, he took over a team that was struggling and in five years he made it respectable; in Chicago, he had the misfortune of having his best teams competing against Edmonton’s hockey dynasty. During his playing career, Pulford was a key member of the Toronto Maple Leafs when they captured the Stanley Cup in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1967, and before becoming a professional, he was with the Toronto Marlboros when they won two Memorial Cups, emblematic of the junior hockey championship of Canada.
Pulford was with the Maple Leafs for fourteen seasons before being traded to Los Angeles where he spent the last two years of a playing career that earned him a place in the NHL Hall of Fame. Tallon met him when he was a Maple Leaf. “I was playing in Toronto with the Marlboros so we had some background,” the Panthers GM said. “Beyond that I knew him from playing golf.”
Pulford smiled when he looked back on his golf course introduction to Tallon. “He was sixteen or seventeen years old and we were in a relatively big tournament at our golf course in Toronto,” reminisced Pulford. “I played Dale in the semi-finals and he whipped me something awful.”
That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Tallon went on to become the 1969 Canadian Junior Golf Club champion and played briefly on the Canadian PGA tour before focusing on his NHL career. After his retirement from hockey—during the time he spent with the Hawks as a radio/TV analyst, director of player personnel, and general manager—he lived in Lake Forest and worked as the head golf pro at the Highland Park Country Club.
When Pulford became the Hawks’ coach and general manager in the summer of 1977, Tallon was starting his fourth season with the team. “He had a reputation of being a disciplinarian, a hard-nosed coach,” Tallon said. “He had a real good knowledge of the technical aspects of the game and he was intense. You learned from that this is what has to be done to be successful. Really be involved; that’s basically what we learned from Pully.
“He had a rough, gruff exterior, but he really cared about his players. Deep down he has such a good heart.”
Among his former players, Pulford has maintained the closest relationship with Tallon and Sutter. Sutter’s introduction came thanks to the TV set in his father Louis’ farmhouse outside Viking, Alberta. “Growing up in western Canada, at that time, you were a huge Toronto fan,” he explained. “I saw him win Stanley Cups on our black-and-white TV, and my dad told me more about Pully than I could ever hope to know. It was funny, when I was with the Hawks and Dad would see me on the road or come to Chicago to see me, he would hang out with Pully.
“At the end of the day, Pully was a farm boy from Ontario. He worked his rear off to be a hockey player and he played a long time. He understood the values and could incorporate hockey and life. I never had any problem talking to him about personal stuff.
“He has gone from being my coach and GM to being one of my best friends. He has been to all of our weddings and all of our funerals, and I talk to him on all the special days of the year.”
The second oldest of the six Sutter brothers who played in the NHL, Darryl, wasn’t a prodigy. Pulford selected him in the eleventh round of the 1978 draft, making him the one hundred seventh-ninth overall selection. He spent a year playing in Japan to improve his skills before joining the Hawks minor league team, then located in New Brunswick. During the 1979-80 season, he broke into the NHL under coach Eddie Johnston, playing eight regular season and five playoff games. He made the team the next season when Magnuson became the coach and scored forty goals. When Magnuson’s coaching career ended midway through the 1981-82 season, Pulford went back behind the bench for the rest of the season and he did the same thing when Orval Tessier was fired with twenty-seven games left in the regular season.
“Pully taught me a lot about the game in terms of the structure and defensive part of it,” Sutter said. “He taught me about being a good team player and understanding my role. He put a lot of pressure on us young guys to fulfill our potential and maximize our ability.
“The most important guys by far in my career and life were Pully and Bill Wirtz (the Hawks’ former owner who lived in the same Winnetka home for fifty-one years prior to his death at age seventy-seven in 2007). Nobody else is even close. Pully and Bill Wirtz were all about family.”
Recurring injuries forced Sutter to end his career following the 1986-87 season. “I was twenty-nine years old and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Sutter remembered. “In those days, players didn’t make much money and I had a young family. I talked to Pully and he said: ‘Stay here and be an assistant coach (under Murdoch, the new head coach).
“At the end of that season I told Pully that I didn’t like the assistant coach stuff very much and he said: ‘OK, go to Saginaw and coach the farm team.’ We won our division in Saginaw and the next season when the team moved to Indianapolis we won the (Turner Cup) championship. … The following year (1990-91) Mike Keenan became the GM and coach in Chicago, and I came back to be his assistant.”
With the blessings of Pulford, who was promoted to executive vice president when Keenan was hired, Sutter was named head coach by Keenan prior to the 1992-93 season, and he stayed until June 1995, when he resigned so he could devote more time to caring for a young son born with Down syndrome.
Like Sutter with the Hawks, Pulford had no idea what the future had in store when he was in his heyday with the Maple Leafs. Then, on Sept. 3, 1970, he was traded to Los Angeles, and he was told that the main reason for his acquisition was because the Kings’ hierarchy wanted him to someday become their coach.
“When you’re playing hockey you don’t know really know the game,” Pulford recalled. “You don’t know the ins and outs of hockey but in those last two years of my playing career I studied the game.
“I became close friends with the late John Wooden (the legendary coach who built the greatest dynasty in college basketball history at UCLA). John taught me a lot about the psychological aspects of coaching and motivating players.”
Although coaching was new to Pulford when he went behind the Kings’ bench in 1972-73, as a player he had demonstrated leadership qualities. He was one of the founding fathers of the NHL Players’ Association and served as the organization’s president from 1967-72 and he was the Kings captain the two years he played for them. As the Kings coach, Pulford turned one of the worst defensive teams into one of the best, and he was voted NHL Coach of the Year at the end of the 1974-75 season.
His work in Los Angeles got the attention of Wirtz, and prior to the 1977-78 season, he was lured to Chicago to play the dual role of coach and general manager. At the end of that season, he again was selected NHL Coach of the Year, this time by The Hockey News, which is considered the Bible of the sport. Pulford intended to concentrate on his job as general manager when he vacated the coaching job in the summer of 1979, but it didn’t work out that way. Three times thereafter when the team was struggling Wirtz asked him to go back to coaching.
It was a similar situation in his role as general manager. After being promoted to senior vice president in 1991, he stepped aside as GM but came back from 1992-97, in 1999-2000, and from 2003-05. Finally, on Oct. 11, 2007, as part of the major reorganization in the franchise’s management fifteen days after Wirtz’s death, Pulford retired from his active role in daily operations as senior vice president and became an officer with the Wirtz Corp.
Pulford has remained loyal to the Blackhawks and said he attends all of the home games in the United Center before he and his wife leave for their winter home in Florida. There he “periodically” goes to watch his protégé Tallon’s Panthers play. Obviously, a love of the game that Pulford had a passion for playing and coaching is still there.
“Pully always thought about the game first. It was never me first,” Wilson said. “He truly loved the game. I think that’s the common thread we all share. Murph (Murray) and Dale and myself never went to college; we learned by osmosis how to deal with issues and problems and all that.
“It was kind of the old-school learning foundation under Pully. We all had moments when he had to kick our behinds, and he certainly did, but there also were times when a pat on the back was needed and he had a great pulse on that. When guys were struggling and needed support, he had a great feel for what was needed and at what time.”
The affection Pulford has for his former players who went on to become coaches and general managers is heartfelt. Magnuson’s death in a December 15, 2003 automobile accident affected him deeply. “The day he was killed was the worst day of my life,” Pulford said. “I don’t know how good a coach Keith was, but he was a great, great guy.”
There is pride in Pulford’s voice when he contemplates the post-playing careers of Sutter, Tallon, Murray, Wilson, and Bergevin. “Dale and Bob and Doug and Marc are all excellent general managers in the league and are very successful,” he said. “It’s the same with Darryl as a coach. He’s very intelligent—in hockey and in life.
“Other than Darryl, who is probably the one player I had the biggest influence on, Dale is the only one of the five I talk to periodically. Dale did a very good job here. He drafted Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford, and he made a great trade for Patrick Sharp. From scouting for many years, he has a tremendous gift of seeing players and knowing which ones are going to be pretty good. That’s a gift that a lot of people don’t have.
“In saying that, I don’t in any way want to take away from the job that (Tallon’s successor) Stan Bowman has done. I want to emphasize that Stan has done an outstanding job here.”
In Pulford’s opinion, “Bob Murray has maybe the best hockey knowledge” of the four pupils who became general managers. “When I first came here, I considered trading him to Washington; it was between him and another guy,” Pulford recalled. “We kept Bob and he became a heck of a defenseman. That knowledge has carried over.”
“He built foundations for your career, things that are always there.” — Bob Murray on Pulford
“Doug Wilson was a great defenseman,” Pulford went on. “He is probably a player who should be in the Hall of Fame. He not only was a great player, he was a very intelligent player. He went to San Jose near the end of his career and after he retired he worked for Dean (Lombardi) in the front office. He learned the business and became very good at it.
“Marc Bergevin became a good defenseman for us and he always was a really, really good team man. Later, he worked for us in the scouting end of the business. He was well-respected. You kind of knew he was going to go on, and now he’s doing an outstanding job in Montreal.”
Pulford also has nothing but good things to say about Savard, the Hall-of-Fame center who was Joel Quenneville’s predecessor as coach of the Hawks. Although Savard hasn’t gotten back into coaching, Pulford believes that given another opportunity he would excel.
“Dennis was a great, great player but I didn’t expect him to ever become a coach, and he became a good coach,” Pulford said. “He was a dedicated coach who worked very hard at it and he was an intelligent coach.”
Not only did Pulford mentor at least sixteen future NHL general managers and coaches during his years as a coach and general manager, he also tutored many others who went on to be successful as minor league head coaches and assistant coaches in the NHL.
Cliff Koroll was Magnuson’s assistant before his former teammate was fired and Tessier’s assistant before the volatile man nicknamed Mount Orval was fired.
“When Maggie left I stayed and worked under Pully, and it was the same when Orval left,” said Koroll, who no longer is employed in hockey but continues to be involved as president of the Blackhawks’ Alumni.
“Pully was a demanding coach—he demanded a work ethic. He wasn’t a motivator per se with speeches, but he knew how to get the best out of most of his players. He was old school, but he also was receptive to a lot of new ideas such as the ones Roger Neilson brought in when he joined us as an assistant.
“There’s got to be something behind the success a lot of Pully’s players have gone on to have. I really believe it was something that Pully instilled in them.”