PROBERT, PULFORD & MCPHEE: MOONLIGHTING, PART II
Welcome to Moonlighting, Part II, the second installment of our three-part series chronicling the wild journey of famed hockey coach Lorne Molleken through the SJHL, WHL, AHL, and NHL.
In Part I, the 64-year old Molleken, known universally as “Mooner”, discussed his junior and pro playing career which was followed by a quick rise in the coaching ranks through junior stops in Swift Current, Weyburn, Moose Jaw, and Saskatoon. After the 1994-95 campaign in which Molleken’s Blades lost a seven-game WHL championship series to the Kamloops Blazers, Lorne was named coach of the AHL’s Cape Breton Oilers (Edmonton NHL affiliate) by Edmonton GM Glen Sather, in the summer of 1995.
This is where the story picks up.
“I remember my first draft with the Oilers was in Edmonton in 1995 and I remember sitting at the draft table,” Molleken said in a phone interview from his home at Long Lake, SK. “We’d just come through all those playoff wars with the Blades and Clarke Wilm played one whole playoff with one arm. He was just a hard-nosed kid, right?
“We get around to about the sixth round and I get up from the end of the table and walk to the other end and say to head scout Barry Fraser, ‘We should draft Clarke Wilm!’ (Oilers assistant coach) Teddy Green pulls me aside and says, ‘Lorne at this level, coaches coach and scouts scout. Go sit down.’”
Duly noted. What Mooner’s always done best is coach, and it didn’t take long for him to weave his Mooner Magic in the AHL.
That first season in Sidney, NS (1995-96), the Cape Breton Oilers went 33-40-3-4 and missed the playoffs. For the next season, the team was moved to Hamilton, ON, renamed the Bulldogs, and promptly went to the Calder Cup Finals after a regular-season record of 28-39-9-4.
In 1997-98 the Bulldogs were really on a roll, finishing 36-22-17-5, however they bowed out in Round 2 of the AHL Playoffs.
But Molleken had quickly made a name for himself as a successful pro coach and continued his reputation of building strong relationships with players.
“In that ’95 Draft we chose Georges Laraques,” Molleken continued. “I had him in the minors and one night we lost real bad in Baltimore. It was about a 10-hour bus ride home and he came up to the front of the bus and said, ‘Lorne, you’re too nice of a guy to the players.’
“So when we got home at 4:00 in the morning I told them to put their stuff on and I skated the shit out ’em for a couple hours.
“Georgie pulled me aside and said ‘I DIDN’T MEAN THAT!’ Haha.”
Lorne’s coaching philosophy never changed from junior to the pros. His brand of hockey was physical, take-no-prisoners, and made even the skilled players play 10-feet tall.
“On that team that year we had Dennis Bonvie and Georges Laraques,” Molleken continued. “We had a tough, hard-nosed team and we ended up going to the Calder Cup Finals and losing out to the Bob Hartley-led Hershey Bears.”
Mooner’s stint in the AHL lasted just three seasons. Next up was the opportunity he’d been waiting for for his whole life: the National Hockey League.
“How I ended up in Chicago was the NHL Draft was in Buffalo in 1998 so Bulldogs GM Scotty Howson and I drove over from Hamilton to Buffalo,” Molleken began. “We’re sitting up in the room, going through all the meetings and interviewing players and Ronnie Lowe was the Oilers head coach at the time and he said,’ Mooner, I just heard Chicago hired Dirk Graham as their head coach and he wants you to be his assistant coach.’
“So the day goes on and we continue our meetings and finally Glen Sather calls me over and said Chicago’s asked for permission to talk to me. He told me I should stay with the Edmonton Oilers organization and that’s one thing I’ll say about Glen Sather; he’s a loyal, loyal person and cares about people. The other thing I learned from Glen Sather is to be a good listener.”
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about hockey, it’s that things move fast. Even in the off-season.
“The next thing you know I met with Dirk Graham and Bob Murray, who was the Blackhawks GM at the time, and I ended up going to Chicago,” Molleken recalled. “I appreciated what Glen had said about staying with Edmonton but this was the Chicago Blackhawks! And to go coach with a guy from Regina who’d been the captain of the team and we’d played in the minors together? You know what I mean.”
It truly was an opportunity too great to pass up, but things in Chicago would be rocky, to say the least.
“We weren’t a great team that year,” Molleken sighed. “We signed Mark Janssens, Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Doug Smolek, Eric Daze, Jocelyn Thibault. Our goalie coach was Vladislav Tretiak!”
Those are all big names. In the 1980s! But by the late 1990s, the Blackhawks roster was a bit drab.
“Those guys were getting long in the tooth,” Lorne admitted. “That’s when I really learned it’s more about having a good mix of older guys and young guys. Anyways what happened Roddy, was we weren’t doing very good. Dirk was the head coach and Denis Savard and I were the assistant coaches.
“Trent Yawney became an assistant coach too because he’d had a career-ending injury. At this point, we’re 16-35-8 in that season of 1998-99. We were all sitting around one afternoon in the coaches office in Chicago, talking about players, and Bob Murray comes into the room and said he wants a one-on-one with Dirk. I’m like ‘What’s going on?’
“Dirk leaves and when he comes back, he’s real emotional. He said they fired him. Then Bob Murray comes in and said he wants to talk to me. I figured I’m getting fired too, right? But he said (Blackhawks owner) Mr. Wirtz wants me to take over as the interim coach. I said no, I wouldn’t do that to Dirk. But I went back out to see him and you know what Dirk said? He said ‘I told those guys to hire you as the head coach back in the summertime. And I want you to be the head coach. That was that.”
Would the Mooner Magic happen again, this time in Chicago? Yes and no. There was a lot of work to do.
“Tretiak used to always say to me, ‘Lorney! Lorney! Deees-ipline! Deees-ipline!” Molleken laughed. “The Blackhawks weren’t very disciplined. We were a tough team. We had Probert, VandenBussche, Bonvie. We were tough Roddy, eh?
“I took over and we had some success (13-6-4). Then we were in New Jersey and I got a phone call from Billy Reay, the long-time coach. He was tight with Mr. Wirtz. They sat together at every Blackhawks game and whenever we played an Original 6 team, I’d have Billy come down to the dressing room and have him read the starting lineup to the guys.
“Anyways he said he’d just talked to Mr. Wirtz and he wanted to take the interim tag off. Hole-ayy! He said ‘Ask for this much money because I know you’ll get it!’ And I did.”
The Blackhawks finished the 1998-99 season with a record of 32-30-8, dead-last in the NHL’s Central Division. However Lorne would have the benefit of a full season coming back the next year, but things didn’t go anywhere near according to plan.
“The next year at training camp, my Dad, who was a diabetic and had his legs amputated and different things like that, got sick and went into a coma,” Molleken reflected. “We’d just played Toronto in an exhibition game that was full of fights. The next morning my Mom called and said Dad was real sick so we jumped on a plane and went back to Regina to be with him. It was probably 10 days and I basically missed all of camp. My Dad came out of the coma and asked why I’d come home? He said I needed to get back with the team.”
This is where things get really wild and involve a story which is still talked about in the NHL to this day.
“We had an exhibition game in Columbus against Washington (the Blue Jackets weren’t in the league yet) so I jumped on a plane and headed there out of Regina. The game had just started and I walked right into the rink and onto the bench. We had a kid named Remi Royer who’d never played in the NHL but had played in the AHL. He ended up fighting this kid two or three times that night, and Dave Manson gets into it with Olaf Kolzig and everything like that. There was a whole bunch of fights.
“After the game, the Capitals coaches Ronnie Wilson and Tim Hunter are yelling at me different things as we’re walking off the ice. I get into the tunnel and now here comes (Capitals GM) George McPhee down the hallway. The next thing you know, there’s punches thrown.
“He knocked me cockstiff. He’s yelling at me ‘You gutless fucker!’ and this and that because of all the fights that were going on. It doesn’t matter, I don’t blame anybody, it doesn’t matter to me Roddy, right? My philosophy is you live by the sword, you die by the sword. You win some fights, you lose some fights.”
But it wasn’t nearly that cut-and-dry. In fact, things only escalated with McPhee.
“Our media guy Dave Stensby jumps in and Dave Manson, who got kicked out of the game, comes out of the room, and him and George McPhee are fighting down the hallway!” Mooner exclaimed. “When George hit me, he broke his hand right on the side of my head! When I got back into the room, in one hand I got the sleeve of George’s suit coat and in the other hand I got his glasses!”
Long before Donald Trump, there was a very unpopular person in Washington. It was in September of 1999, and his name was Lorne Molleken.
Famed Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wilbon (yes, the same guy from ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption), wrote this about Molleken the day after the McPhee incident in the Post.
“If the league office, starting with Commissioner Gary Bettman, had done its job, McPhee wouldn’t have had to confront Blackhawks Coach Lorne Molleken, whose mission this preseason, it seems, has been to injure as many opposing players as possible,” Wilbon huffed. “Perhaps he feels that would help even things during the regular season for the talent-bereft Blackhawks. Molleken, in the form of a black eye, got what was coming to him.”
It was the buzz of the NHL. But for the boys from Saskatchewan, it was just Mooner being Mooner.
“We get back to Chicago and the next night we’re playing St. Louis and they’re there with Tony Twist and Kelly Chase and all those guys. They come over and they’re just shaking their heads.
“But I was fucked up. I guess they caught me reading the newspaper upside down … everything. I was messed up.”
As far as the National Hockey League was concerned, Molleken came off as lily-white in the melee. The only punishment he got was a bad concussion. However, the NHL threw the book at the Capitals.
“I never faced discipline for that but George got suspended for a month,” Lorne reported. “Hey in the heat of the battle, that’s the way it is. I don’t blame anybody. And then it goes on where Mr. Wirtz got fined like $100,000 from the NHL because he put in the Chicago Sun, ‘We’re gonna invite those guys from Washington over and we’re gonna go in a dark room.’ He used to be a prize-fighter!”
Yes, kids, that’s the way things were handled in the good ol’ days. And Lorne Molleken was cut from the same cloth as Mr. Bill Wirtz. During his time in Chicago, the Wirtz family treated Lorne like royalty.
“They were incredible people,” Molleken gushed. “Any issues I had with my Dad, Mr. Wirtz would help me out with. He said he’d send me on a private jet, whatever. They were in the booze industry and at that time I believe four out of every five drinks in the State of Nevada was their liquor. Patsy and I went to Vegas one time and Peter Wirtz, the son, gave me a number to call and before I could turn around, they had me going to every golf course, every show, every fancy restaurant, whatever you could think of!
“When we left Vegas I think our bill was $32 at the hotel.”
But it wasn’t all peaches and cream. Losing has that effect. And as it turns out, Molleken’s days were numbered in the Windy City. Remember what Mike Wilbon wrote about the Blackhawks being bereft of talent.
“What happened was, we’d got off to a bad start (5-15-4) in that ’99-’00 season,” Mooner said. “My assistant coaches were Denis Savard and Trent Yawney. And I’d had good communication lines with the GM Bob Murray. He was an intense, hard-nosed guy in those days. I don’t know if he still is. He wore the Blackhawk on his sleeve like a badge. But we had our battles.
“One day we’re at the practice rink and Bob calls and said he was on the way to the United Center for some meetings. We’re getting ready for practice and in walks Bob Pulford, the President of the Blackhawks. He says ‘Savy, Yawns, get out of here. I want to talk to Lorne.’
“Him and the Wirtz family were tight. But they’d fired Bob Murray over the phone. Bob hadn’t even gotten to the United Center if I remember right. So as soon as Pully comes walking in I thought, ‘Uh oh, we’re all going to get it’. He told me they were having a press conference in the afternoon and they wanted me there, so go home and put on a suit and tie.
“That’s exactly what I did and when I walked into the offices, I saw the news release on the secretary’s desk and it said BOB PULFORD NAMED BLACKHAWKS GM & HEAD COACH. I go ‘What the fuck is going on?’
“Mr. Wirtz was off in Miami on one of his boats so sitting in the room are their lawyer Gene Gozdziki, Peter and Rocky Wirtz and Pully. I held up the press release and said ‘What’s this?’ and Rocky said ‘This is what my Dad wants Lorne.’
“I sat there and I was just … lost. We sat there in that room and had a long discussion about a lot of things. It got to a point where the press conference was going to start so Pully kicked me out. But I still had two years left on my contract.
“Afterwards Pully comes down, gives me a hug, and said he didn’t want me to quit. I said, ‘Don’t worry Pully, I ain’t fucken quittin’.’
The easiest way out of this jam for the Blackhawks would’ve been for Lorne to resign, but he didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. He wasn’t going to make it easy for them.
“We held a team meeting with the players and Bob tells them I’m still the coach and he’s just going to watch over things. Can you believe that? We got through the year and they hired Mike Smith, the old Winnipeg Jets guy, in some sort of management role.
“He told me to disappear, like don’t talk to the media or be seen anywhere for awhile. June rolls around and he calls me into a meeting at the United Center. He says ‘What’s next for Lorne Molleken?’, which I didn’t even know what that meant. Then he gives me three options: 1) We’ll give you the opportunity to find work elsewhere, 2) Mr. Wirtz wants you to stay as an assistant coach, or 3) You can take your buyout.
“I said ‘I’ll take my buyout’.”
By his own admission, Lorne was flabbergasted. He’d never been fired before, and this wasn’t even a firing since the Wirtz family had offered him the chance to stay in a lesser role. But that’s never been Lorne’s way.
It was time to go but for the first time in his life, Lorne Molleken didn’t know where.
“Next thing you know I’m sitting in Chicago and my phone rings,” Mooner recalled. “It was Bobby Trumbley in Regina, a scout for the Pats, because that’s the year Regina was to host the Memorial Cup.”
Like I pointed out before, things happen fast in this game.
And back home in Regina in that summer of 1999, I was sitting in Regina Pats GM Brent Parker’s office. Brent was on the phone and when he hung up, he turned to me and said “What would you say to our next coach being Lorne Molleken?”
I stared in amazement and said, “You’re kidding!”
You can hear the wonder in Lorne’s voice when he said on the phone this week:
“That’s how I ended up being the head coach of the Regina Pats.”
Mooner was coming home to take over the oldest franchise in junior hockey, in a season where we were set to host the 2001 Memorial Cup.
Stay tuned for Moonlighting, Part III.
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(Photos: Fox Sports Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times)