The Chicago Black Hawks were struggling last season when General Manager Bob Pulford fired Coach Orval Tessier on Feb. 4 and took over behind the bench.
But the Black Hawks went 17-6-4 in their remaining 27 games of the regular season and reached the Stanley Cup semifinals, finally losing to the two-time champion Edmonton Oilers.
The Black Hawks played well against Edmonton. After losing the first two games of the series in Edmonton, they won two at Chicago Stadium. But the Oilers came back to win the series by taking the next two games.
"It was a very satisfying situation because the guys played hard," Pulford said of the Campbell Conference final series against the Oilers. "We got hurt very badly or I think we might have gone seven games with them."
Pulford did such a good job of coaching that Black Hawk owner Bill Wirtz asked him to remain behind the bench this season.
Pulford agreed but said he didn't want the job all to himself. He therefore promoted assistant coach Roger Neilson to co-coach. Multiple coaches are nothing new in Chicago, of course, where the Cubs once rotated a panel of them.
There also is another hockey coaching combination at Edmonton, where Coach-General Manager Glen Sather made assistant coach John Muckler a co-coach last spring after the Oilers had won their second straight Cup.
Chicago had three losses and one tie in its first four games this season but has recovered. The Black Hawks and St. Louis Blues are tied for first place in the Norris Division.
"Pully is an all-around super coach," said left wing Curt Fraser, the team's leading scorer. "He's a fantastic motivator. When Pully stepped in there, he brought everyone up. He gives you a lot of confidence.
"Roger is super with videos. He scouts the other teams and he's a great tactician."
Nielson, nicknamed Captain Video because he was one of the first hockey coaches to make extensive use of high tech, prepares extensive videotaped scouting reports on opponents. Pulford, Neilson and assistant coach Cliff Koroll run practices. During games, Neilson handles the defensemen and Pulford works with the forwards.
"It's tough being both the coach and general manager," Pulford said. "I spend all morning coaching and all afternoon on my GM duties."
Both Pulford and Neilson are former King coaches, and they're back in town for the Black Hawks' game with the Kings--their second meeting in six days--tonight at 7:30 at the Forum. The Kings squandered a 3-1 lead against the Black Hawks in Chicago last Sunday but came back to earn a 4-4 tie on a goal by Phil Sykes.
Pulford has been coaching by himself for the last few days. Neilson remained in Vancouver after the Black Hawk game there Tuesday night because of the death of a close friend, a teen-age boy he had taken under his wing. Neilson was expected to fly in for tonight's game, however.
Neilson coached the Kings for the final 28 games of the 1983-84 season, after Don Perry was fired, compiling an 8-17-3 record. Neilson also was head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks. In 1982, he led the Canucks to the Stanley Cup final, losing to the New York Islanders.
Pulford still ranks as the most successful coach in the Kings' history. He compiled a 178-150-68 record from 1972-73 to 1976-77.
Pulford, 49, played on four Stanley Cup championship teams in 14 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although he was born just outside Toronto and grew up following the Maple Leafs, Pulford said the first game he saw at Maple Leafs Garden was when he made his debut there as a player.
He was traded to the Kings in 1970 and played two seasons here before he retired to become coach. Pulford's hair was black when he played for the Kings, but it's all white now.
In 1974-75 the Kings finished with a club-record 105 points under Pulford, who was named the NHL Coach of the Year.
Four former Kings who played under Pulford are now NHL head coaches: Barry Long at Winnipeg, Butch Goring at Boston, Dan Maloney at Toronto, and Bob Berry at Pittsburgh. There are also two assistant coaches, Mike Murphy of the Kings and Bob Murdoch of Calgary, and Rogie Vachon, who played goalie for Pulford, is the Kings' general manager.
"Pully is one of the finest people I've ever met in the whole sport of hockey," Murphy said. "I still call him for advice, and not just on hockey matters.
"He had a unique impression on many of his players. The guys who continued in the game and went into coaching were high-grade guys.
"He's a very intimidating type of guy, but he's a softie at heart. It just takes awhile to get to know him."
Bob Miller, veteran King broadcaster, said that Pulford is the most intense coach he's ever been around.
"He was all business around his players," Miller said. "But away from the players you could have a good time with him."
Said King center Marcel Dionne, who played under Pulford for two seasons: "That's his way. Down deep he's a nice guy. He was very helpful to me when I played for him."