Doug MacLean: Can fiery coach-manager find restraint in new role?

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
Published August 12, 2007

The Columbus Blue Jackets lost and Doug MacLean was steamed.

It didn't matter that the defeat was in a meaningless rookie tournament, or that reaching the title game was, really, a nice accomplishment for the year-old franchise.

Nope, the team's president and general manager was taking it personally.

As then-assistant general manager Jim Clark recalled of the September 2001 game, MacLean had pulled rank and demanded first-round draft choice Pascal Leclaire start in goal instead of a free agent the rest of the staff wanted to see.

"Before we can say a word," Clark said of the 7-5 loss, "Doug goes by and says, 'Shut your mouths. If we played the other guy it would have been 10-5.'"

That is MacLean. He gets in the first word, always wants the last, and gives you a few choice ones in between.

"There's no honeymoon with Doug MacLean," Clark said. "Every day, you play to win."

MacLean, 53, one of at least nine investors involved in a bid to buy the Lightning for about $200-million, is a fascinating study.

Just as much as his nine-year stewardship of the Blue Jackets, or coaching the Florida Panthers to the 1996 Stanley Cup final, MacLean is known for displaying a full and colorful range of emotions.

The native of Summerside on Prince Edward Island in Canada is ferociously competitive and has publicly gone face-to-face with referees, reporters, staff and even his players.

He got so wound up during Blue Jackets games that people in the stands could hear expletives flying in the team suite.

"I do speak my mind," MacLean said, "and I can go a little overboard with it."

But MacLean also is so charismatic and has such a great sense of humor, Bill Schurman, his Prince Edward Island friend, called him, "The go-to guy in a room."

And every Christmas, MacLean buys gifts for a needy child he might befriend at a hockey rink, said his wife, Jill.

"I'm biased," she said, "but deep down, he's one of the best people you'll ever meet."

And likely one of the most driven.

"When you work with Doug, you have to work, too," said Dave King, the Blue Jackets' first coach. "His expectations are you are going to work as hard to try to succeed."

And if you don't?

"He'll be the first guy down there," Clark said, "to give you a kick."

Breaking a pattern

One of MacLean's most public explosions came in October 2005 after a 4-1 loss to San Jose. According to the Columbus Dispatch, MacLean upbraided 20-year-old Nikolai Zherdev in front of teammates and reporters in the locker room with "a stern and half-unprintable admonishment."

MacLean said he knows an owner must respect some boundaries, including those with Lightning coach John Tortorella, who can level similarly harsh criticism but never in front of the media.

"So I don't think I'll be doing that anymore," MacLean said. "I have a funny feeling with John I won't have to. I suspect it will be handled for me."

Though he said he will be less visible as an owner, MacLean plans daily talks with general manager Jay Feaster.

"I think he will allow John and Jay to do their jobs," said Bryan Murray, general manager of the Ottawa Senators, who held that job with the Panthers when MacLean was hired and fired.

Said Clark: "There's no doubt Doug is going to be intimately involved in the big decisions. I'm sure he's learned a tremendous amount since he was president and GM of the Blue Jackets, but in the end, it's difficult for any of us to change who we innately are."

But he added: "You can have a major confrontation with Doug after a hockey game and the next day it's like it never happened."

MacLean admitted it will be an adjustment.

In nine years with the expansion Blue Jackets, from February 1998 to April of this year, when he was fired, he was responsible for everything from overseeing the construction of Nationwide Arena to designing the team's first logo.

A tireless promoter hired two years before the Blue Jackets played their first game, MacLean gets much credit for selling hockey in Columbus. The team sold out all 41 home games in its second season, despite finishing last.

Said team spokesman Todd Sharrock, "He shook more hands and kissed more babies than anyone I've seen in that position."

But MacLean also created expectations. And after six seasons with no playoffs, he wore out his welcome.

Attendance, which peaked at 743,576, was 672,443 last season. And while the team made good draft picks 15 of 45 players taken from 2000-04 were either still with the NHL team last season or in the organization, there were questionable moves, such as bringing in expensive and disappointing forward Sergei Fedorov, a trade MacLean said he would not make again.

MacLean also said he erred in 2002 by handing the goaltending job to 25-year-old Marc Denis.

"He was too young," said MacLean, whose 2006 trade of Denis to the Lightning for Fredrik Modin was probably his best.

MacLean defended rapidly promoting some of the team's young stars to the NHL rather than season them in the minors, because, "They are going to be big-time players."

In any event, the team and MacLean were so intertwined (he even coached 73 games from 2002-04), there was no separating him and its on-ice failures.

"The only thing I can share with you is Doug played an integral part of the Columbus franchise and getting it started and did a lot of good things," team president Mike Priest said.

Holding on to his roots

MacLean's trip from Summerside to the NHL is not stock.

He was an assistant coach with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League while pursuing a master's in educational psychology from the University of Western Ontario. Back in Summerside he taught special education in high school and coached the town's junior team.

His field of study was no accident.

"I always thought psychology was really beneficial from a coaching perspective," MacLean said. "I think it's an important part of dealing with athletes."

MacLean maintains ties to home. He and Jill, to whom he will be married 30 years in September, built a cottage on Shelton Beach on Prince Edward Island, an anchor in a transient life that took them to St. Louis, Washington, Baltimore and Detroit before South Florida.

MacLean said he has a "great relationship" with his mother, Fran, who lives part-time in Delray Beach, and did with his father, Jim, who ran a restaurant and died five years ago at 74.

It was his father, MacLean said, whom he first saw buying Christmas gifts for needy kids.

Clark said the lesson must have stuck: "The one thing I can say about Doug MacLean is if there is truly a person in need, Doug will be the first person there to help him out."

MacLean gave several lifelong friends jobs in Columbus: Gerard Gallant (coach), Clark (assistant GM), George Matthews (play-by-play) and Jim Rankin (hockey operations). MacLean was criticized for the hometown posse but insisted, "It was a bunch of guys who were unbelievably good at their jobs."

"With Doug you always know where you stand," Gallant said, now an assistant with the New York Islanders. "He's excited. He's fiery. He enjoys his life."

All of it, including daily jogs, though he kidded Florida's humidity has made him a "walker;" his pasta, though he said he is off wheat products and down to a "soft" 197 pounds; and the Vitamin C tablets he keeps in his pocket and chews like a comfort food.

But there is nothing, he said, like the NHL.

"You get to do your hobby for a career," he said. "How lucky is that?"

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS: Doug MacLean
Age: 53
Hometown: Summerside, Prince Edward Island.
Family: Wife, Jill; son, Clark, 19, daughter, MacKenzie, 16.
Career highlights: Played for the Montreal Junior Canadiens in 1971-72 and had five goals and five assists in 31 games. Head coach at the University of New Brunswick in 1985-86. Assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues, Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings from 1987-92. As head coach, he took the Florida Panthers to the 1996 Stanley Cup final and was Hockey News coach of the year; then, with the team 7-12-4, he was fired in November 1997. President and general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets from 1998-2007.