Some of the boldfaced headlines accompanying Tom Webster’s three-year tenure as LA Kings head coach might be among the most misleading of anyone who held the position since Red Kelly was named the franchise’s first coach in 1967. And that’s not the fault of newspaper writers or editors. He did throw a stick at Kerry Fraser, earning the longest suspension handed to an NHL coach. He did trade punches with Doug Gilmour.
But if there’s an anecdote from that truncated but fascinating era that raised the hood and revealed the engine that powered him, it’s buried some 600 words into an article printed during the fallout of his dismissal. “If there is one regret I have as a coach, it’s that I didn’t get a coaches’ association started, like I wanted to,” Webster told Steve Springer of the LA Times in May, 1992.
The lack of playoff success certainly cost him and, in its wake, undoubtedly ate at him. Though L.A. won its only divisional title under Webster, whose three years at the helm produced the sixth best points percentage among 26 Kings coaches, they didn’t advance past the second round with the league’s most superstar-studded group. But the fuel behind a 50-year hockey career – 15 as a player, 24 as a coach, 11 as a scout – as exemplified in that quote was a desire to help others.
Webster passed away April 10 at 71, reportedly from brain cancer.
“Tommy was an exceptionally intense coach. He was hard. But that never outweighed the fact that you knew he cared about you,” Paul Maurice said of the coach that passed away
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Maurice is more than accommodating in talking about Webby, who was much more than simply a mentor for the Winnipeg head coach. If Webster was your coach, there wasn’t any way of getting around the fact that he and his family were caring for you and looking out for your best interests.
The stage of life in loco parentis – “in the place of a parent” – that springs maturation comes earlier for junior hockey players than maybe for those who go to college or leave home for work, and Webster and his wife, Carole, who passed away last year, were essentially extended members of the Windsor Spitfire billet family. They’d invite the players over for dinner – as well as board games, as Maurice’s teammate, Peter DeBoer recalled – and enjoyed the experience it provided their young kids, Stacey and Brent. “And I’m talking about all the players on the team at one point. He was constantly bringing players over, and you would get to see the family side of the coach,” Maurice said.
Midway through his overage season as Spitfires captain, the defenseman’s hockey career received a jolt. Limits on overage players prompted a decision by the club to change its mix of 20-year-olds, and the Peter Karmanos, Jr.-owned club provided the option to join Webster’s staff as an assistant.
He took the team up on its offer, a decision that helped shape hockey development and coaching circles for decades to come – though that 1987-88 season ended in heartbreak as Windsor’s 21-game winning streak was snapped in the Memorial Cup final by a Barry Melrose-coached Medicine Hat team catalyzed by Wayne McBean’s midseason return from Los Angeles.
But 32 years and 1,600 NHL games coached later, Maurice recalls those formative moments in which Webster’s renowned detail and care for his players and fellow coaches was apparent.
“He’d sit down, and this was back in the days of VHS tape, and break down the game for you, and you’d watch hockey with him,” he recalled of his earliest days as a coach.
“And I look back at that as him being really, really generous. If I don’t have a good experience in my first year and a half coaching or working with somebody, I’m not going to do it anymore. I’m going to finish my degree, and off I go doing something else. But he was so good to me that I just enjoyed the hell out of it. It just became a fun job, right?”
Maurice chuckled when he noted that his own practices weren’t “nearly as long as his used to be,” but that Webster represented a shift towards the modernization of organizational detail and on-ice structure – one well respected because of his pro background. “I would say in terms of my daily operation, I would’ve modeled myself a little bit after him in a lot of ways – how he worked, how he ran his practices,” he said.
“He had a magnetic rink board with the magnetic feet that he used to move around, which we all thought was very cool. It was very avant-garde at the time.”
So were some of Webster’s ideas. At the junior level, on the ice, those who played for him and coached against him understood the heightened emphasis on the team’s play away from the puck and in support. Off the ice, teams that drafted Windsor Spitfires knew they’d be selecting a player whose junior accomplishments were cultivated within the environment of a program known to exact maturity and reward those who didn’t cut corners.
The 1980s Smythe Division was no pantheon of structural precision, but the division produced Campbell Conference champions every year from 1982 to 1990 and six Stanley Cups, meaning that even the Gretzky-boosted Kings knew they needed to supplement their own regimen with whatever boost was available. “I think it was accepted pretty well [by my teammates], to be honest,” said Jim Fox, whose career-ending knee injury kept him off the ice in 1988-89, Robbie Ftorek’s final season before Webster was hired – one that saw Los Angeles swept from the playoffs in the second round by eventual Cup champion Calgary. “I think that the group accepted the fact that they needed more help in [structure and detail], that they could run and gun with anyone, but to win at the important times, I think they took pretty well to it. I think it’s understanding what you need and understanding that he’s trying to give it to you.”
The final season in a playing career is often a difficult one, and Fox gritted through 11 games under Webster in 1990-91 as he came to the difficult terms that his body simply couldn’t endure the explosive combat of an NHL game. Before his transition into broadcasting and community relations, he spent plenty of time with his coach, whose respect and care for his players was apparent.
“Playing in that transition period where coaches were starting to really think about how to talk to their players, as opposed to keeping them in the dark, I felt that a daily basis,” Fox said. “I was basically finding out that I was physically not able to play anymore, and he really spent a lot of time with me – a lot of time – and I really appreciated that, even though it didn’t end up that well for me.”
“I remember only positive about Tom, because I think he talked to me every day. Basically, what happened was the more I played, the more I practiced, the more my knees grinded themselves to the point where I couldn’t play anymore. You don’t really know that at the time, you’re always trying to work to get back in the lineup, but he was really good on a daily basis.”
The Kings went on to win their next three games after the altercation with Gilmour and Calgary that March, cementing the first and only division title in franchise history. After defeating Vancouver in the first round, they lost three overtime games during a notoriously bitter divisional final loss to Edmonton, the second of three consecutive playoff exits at the hands of Gretzky’s old mates.
There were larger issues in play beyond playoff losses, but Webster didn’t blame outside forces or find excuses in what he couldn’t control; rather, he returned to coaching alongside prominent names. He rejoined Maurice in OHL-Detroit as a head coach and was named a Hartford assistant under Maurice when at 28 he became the second youngest head coach in NHL history – two bookends around assistant coaching positions in Florida and Philadelphia, the latter under another highly structured former L.A. coach in Terry Murray. “He had such incredible people around him,” Maurice said. “He worked with Roger Neilson, you had Wayne Gretzky. Like, the spectrum of ideas and thoughts that he would’ve come across over the course of his career is really impressive.”
After returning to Windsor for four years to coach Steve Ott (now a Stanley Cup-winning assistant with St. Louis) and former L.A. first round pick Tim Gleason (a player development coach with Carolina), he transferred his comprehension of player mechanics and development towards a calling that continued for 12 seasons and culminated with a standing ovation from his peers and the hockey fans who stayed late into the second day of the 2014 NHL Draft.
“You know, the one thing I always say is coaches seem like they make the best scouts,” Craig Conroy said. “It’s because of their attention to detail – what exactly they’re looking for, all those little intricacies, like the way the guy pivots, all these things — and Webby was really the master.”
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Conroy, the skilled and detail-oriented two-way forward who played 130 games for the Kings from 2005-07, has spent the last 14 years with the Flames – the first five as a player, the most recent six as the Assistant General Manager to Brad Treliving. His friendly, accommodating reputation precedes him. One story has it that a former Calgary media relations representative reached out to Los Angeles’ staff when he signed with the Kings, inquiring about their best player at speaking with media. Before anyone answered, he shared that they were now second-best behind Craig Conroy.
He’s eager to talk about Webster.
“I remember the first day I had just retired [from playing], and I went to a game and there were all the scouts there and I sat next to Webby and he just said, ‘do you know what you’re looking for, Craig?’,” he said. “And I mean, I’m watching the players, but he goes, ‘who would you want to play with out there? You just retired, who makes plays? What defenseman can get you the puck, how can they support?’”
“All these little things that you think about during the game, he just said those are what you want to look for. Which guys do you want to play with on the ice? Which guy’s going to make you a better player – and vice versa? He kind of walked me through it, right from the beginning, with defensemen, with goalies, and he did it in such a way that he just made you feel good about yourself. He explained to me how to take notes and just kept it really simple and brief – but his attention to detail and his eye for players was excellent.”When Webster spoke in meetings and conferences with other Calgary scouts and executives, it carried weight. And just because of how much he cared for his colleagues didn’t mean that the competitive juices had been exhausted.
“I saw him break his computer once during one of the meetings and I was like ’whoa, didn’t see that coming,’ because he’s always so nice and in a good mood and you loved his stories,” Conroy said. “You could just sit with him for hours and listen to the stories that he had, but when it came time to do the work, he was so passionate and if he liked a player and he believed in him, he made sure everybody knew.”
This was, after all, a voice that carried the tone and gravitas of one who’d played with Howe and coached Gretzky, who’d influenced Maurice and DeBoer and many others, an individual with a high canopy of branches spawning other coaching branches. He was greatly admired by the rest of the room, and particularly amateur/USHL scout Jim Cummins, whose 1,538 penalty minutes in 511 NHL games offer a suggestion that he’s one not afraid to back down from confrontation and perhaps speak his mind. “They would battle, they’d go back and forth,” Conroy said. “I’d just sit there and laugh when I hear them going back and forth, hearing Jim say he likes a guy, ‘that’s fine, you write what you want, I’ll write what I want, we’ll hash it out in the meeting.’ Webby didn’t talk a lot in the meetings, but when he did, he instantly commanded the room and everyone was like, ‘OK, Webby’s talking, let’s listen, guys.’”
Indulge us for a moment, Kings fans, but that voice helped lay the concrete of the Flames’ modern foundation. Having keyed in on an undrafted defenseman he’d previously coached against that played under current Los Angeles AGM Michael Futa and Ontario coach Mike Stothers at Owen Sound, he advocated strongly to Calgary GM Darryl Sutter that they sign Mark Giordano – who’d already begun to plan out his course load at York University, as the story goes.
The 2019 Norris Trophy winner has now played more games in a Flames jersey than anybody other than Jarome Iginla. “I think back when Gio won the Norris, I was thinking of Webby first,” Conroy said.
Between the start of his junior career in 1964 and his retirement in 2014, the only season he spent away from the rink was 1977-78, when recovery from spinal fusion surgery limited him to the final 13 games of a playing career spent with Boston, Detroit and California in the NHL and New England of the WHA, with whom he won the 1973 Avco World Trophy and appeared in 352 games.
The applause that washed over him at the 2014 draft were the echoes from half a century of hockey service – of playing the game, loving the game and developing generations of young talent and bright minds. As the applause provided the score for his final pick, Conroy felt it fitting that Webster’s final act as a scout was to announce a player – Austin Carroll – whose last name sounded like his wife’s.
It was fitting, given Webby’s reputation for treating those he was coaching and mentoring as family. Family members can be honest and blunt and firm – but they’ll also show you more than anybody else how much they deeply care.
“As I got to know him as a man more than just as my junior coach, I realized he just had a huge heart and wore it on his sleeve,” Maurice said. “The emotion he brought to the game was passionate – he loved the game, but he loved people. He’s better at that than I am. Tommy was gifted at that.”
standing O at the Draft for Flames scout Tom Webster after playing, coaching, and mentoring for 50 years. Wow pic.twitter.com/ivpERzcpxl
— Ryan Leslie (@SNryanleslie) June 28, 2014