Even in Death, Brophy Does It In Obscurity

Even in Death, Brophy Does It In Obscurity

This isn’t about announcing or anything game operations really.  This is about a man who gave so much to the sport of ice hockey that people reference him on a daily basis, without actually knowing who he is.  John Brophy was the second winningest coach in professional hockey, but his death on May 23, 2016,

This isn’t about announcing or anything game operations really.  This is about a man who gave so much to the sport of ice hockey that people reference him on a daily basis, without actually knowing who he is.  John Brophy was the second winningest coach in professional hockey, but his death on May 23, 2016, came without so much as a blip on the radar of most hockey fans.  Instead, Brophy’s death, came the same way his legendary career came about, hidden in obscurity in the small towns of North America.

ECHL OriginalYou don’t win 1,027 games as a coach without knowing something about hockey and having success behind the bench.   His coaching career came with 2 1/2 seasons in the NHL and one in the WHA, but it also came with 21 years of playing experience, two of which as a player-coach.  Those two years would be the basis for the character of Reg Dunlop in famous hockey movie Slap Shot.

Brophy was so revered in the minor league ranks of hockey that not only was the character based on him, but a character in the movie was named after him.

Warning, not safe for work or younger viewers

While there isn’t any truth to the rumor that it was John Brophy who in reality did have bladder problems during a game, it makes for a funny story to put into the movie that’s completely plausible.

As a player, he would rack up over 4,000 penalty minutes.  As a coach, he would try to rack up just as many in helping to give an identity to a fledgling league; and in a way, served as much an inspiration to the growth of hockey in North America as he had contributed to a character in what some call the greatest hockey movie of all time.

The Virginian-Pilot:  John Brophy, legendary coach of the Admirals, has died at 83

After being fired 33 games into the 88-89 season–he didn’t even make it out of 1988–by the Toronto Maple Leafs, he found his way south to a Naval city in southeastern Virginia.  Far from the hockey hotbed that afforded him in Toronto, it was in Norfolk that Brophy found most of his success with the Hampton Roads Admirals.

In his 11 years with the Ads, he turned a town from a forgotten southern city with a hockey team, into a city that welcomed the American Hockey League for 15 seasons, paving a path to the NHL for many players.  He did it by winning 35 or more games eight times (he’d only done that three times in his first 13 coaching campaigns and never more than 36), back-to-back championships in 90-91 & 91-92 with a third championship in 97-98 (tied for most in ECHL history), eight seasons with a wining percentage over .600 and creating heated rivalries with Roanoke, Richmond and pretty much anywhere else the ECHL would play.  He took a league that had very little affiliation with the NHL and even less of a budget, and helped it grow to 28 teams with the vast majority of those teams playing south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Some can say the NHL’s successes in southern cities is closely related to John Brophy’s success in the ECHL.

John Brophy’s Playing & Coaching Stats at HockeyDB.com

When the Admirals applied and were accepted to join the American Hockey League for the 2000-2001 season, Brophy went home to Nova Scotia and prepared for the next chapter in his life.  One night, after falling asleep behind the wheel, he was involved in a car crash that sent him through the windshield.  The crash would be the first of TWO times in his life he would be involved in a serious car crash and wind up exiting through the front pane of glass.  Following rehabilitation, he came back with the Wheeling Nailers in 2001-2002 but missed the playoffs that year and the following which looked to be his final job behind the bench.

Richmond Renegades NewUntil Allan Harvie came calling.  Harvie’s Richmond Renegades teams were always involved in bitter battles with each other in those early ECHL years.  It was not uncommon for the teams to be involved in several fights, and Brophy’s temperament as a player was the same as a coach.  One Sunday afternoon game in Richmond in the late 90’s comes to mind.  Typically, when teams played back then, they’d play a three-game series with games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  By Sunday, they were pretty much tired and fighting was optional.  Not when Richmond and Hampton Roads got together.  These teams fought, and in this particular game, Brophy tried climbing the glass between the benches to get at the Richmond coach, bench, and anyone else who would have him.

Even with his penchant for being a hard-nosed competitor on the ice, and the biggest defender of his players off the ice, he became known as someone you respected while hating at the same time.  You hated him if he was on the other team, loved him if he was on your own.  Harvie, whose teams would suffer to the hands of Brophy’s brawlers more than they cared to acknowledge, would come calling when he brought hockey back to Richmond in 2006 when he put the Renegades name back on the sweaters in the Southern Professional Hockey League.  Though Brophy would last only one season before retiring for good, he was a draw for the fans.  And a thorn to the opposition and officials, just like old times.  The man who used to enrage the fans in Virginia’s capitol city, were now cheering him as one of their own.  The fans understood what John Brophy meant to hockey, and how he helped keep hockey growing not only in Hampton Roads, but Richmond, Roanoke and all throughout the south.

WAVY: Former Admirals head coach John Brophy passes away at 83

But, he did it all in obscurity.  The ECHL wouldn’t really gain much traction on a national level until he’d already left its coaching ranks.  The ECHL eventually merged with the West Coast Hockey League and became simply ECHL, four letters.  As the league grew from the solid foundation he helped to build, so did team affiliations.  The emphasis went from winning for the fans by finding players that could still play and putting on a good show, to developing players to play in the AHL and eventually the NHL while still putting on a good show and filling roster holes the “big club” left behind.  One of Brophy’s early goalies was Olaf Kolzig, who would go on to a storied career with the Washington Capitals, leading them to their only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.  While Kolzig was leading the Capitals, Brophy was coaching in obscurity.

Only Scotty Bowman, who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, has more coaching wins than Brophy.  What Brophy has over Bowman though, Brophy is in the ECHL Hall of Fame and has the Coach of the Year award named for him.  But that’s little to really put into perspective what Brophy meant to hockey.  The video below is from Brophy’s induction into the ECHL Hall of Fame in 2009.

Whether you’re watching Slap Shot–or any hockey movie since which puts any tiny reference to the movie–reciting lines that will forever be known by hockey fans–or you’re pinning your buddy against the glass, or watching an NHL game and seeing how the game has changed over the years with all the players who’ve made their way up from the ECHL to the show, you’re seeing a little bit of Brophy.  Even with the NHL starting to skate away from the role of the bruisers and fighters that it relied on for so many years, there’s still a touch of Brophy.  Everyone either has one, or knows a story about John Brophy.

Rest in peace John and thank you for all you did for hockey.

What they’re saying about John Brophy

Jarrod Wronski

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