The first thing that comes to mind when you think of John Muckler – after integrity, class and a champion, of course – is that he was a true hockey lifer. From the time he played for the Detroit Hettche of the International League at the age of 15 in 1949 until he finished his career as a senior advisor to the Arizona Coyotes 60 years later, there was not a corner of the hockey world he hadn’t touched.
It’s actually amazing to consider all that Muckler, who died Monday night at the age of 86, had accomplished during his life. He wasn’t good enough to play in the Original 6 as a player, but he won championships as a hard-rock defenseman with the Charlotte Clippers of the old Eastern League. And from there he went on to coaching and management, winning at every level and becoming an integral part of the success of three NHL franchises – the Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators.
He coached, he managed, sometimes at the same time. Following his minor league success as a player, Muckler won a championship as a coach in the EHL with the Long Island Ducks in 1964-65. Long before he became part of the brain trust of one of the greatest teams of all-time, Muckler worked and grinded his way up to the NHL the hard and honest way. He coached and coached and coached. He coached in the American League, where he was named coach of the year in 1974, then moved on to the defunct Central League, where he once again was the league’s top coach and won another championship with the Dallas Black Hawks.
Then came the salad days. Muckler was hired as an assistant coach in 1982-83 and went on to win five Cups with the team, two of them as co-coach and the final one in 1989-90 as the team’s head coach. “He was tough, strict, but most importantly fair, and he helped lay the groundwork to make our team more accountable to each other which propelled us to become champions,” Wayne Gretzky said in a statement. “A wonderful family man and great friend, he personally took my career to another level, and I will always cherish the hours we talked, from breaking down defenses to raising a family. Rest in peace, John, you will be missed.”
Muckler will be remembered as an old-school hockey guy who adapted with the times and became part of the machinery that created one of the most dynamic teams in the history of the game. And as far as talking hockey, Gretzky was bang-on in his assessment. Gregarious to a fault, Muckler always seemed to have time to talk about the game he loved and to which he devoted much of his life.
After his days with the Oilers ended, Muckler moved on the Sabres, first as coach, then as coach-GM and then just GM. He then went back to coaching with the New York Rangers, then settled in as a GM with the Ottawa Senators, building the team that would go on to make it to the Stanley Cup final in 2007
“The Senators organization is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of John Muckler,” the team said in a statement. “John had the heart of a champion, was a consummate professional and a beloved family man. For years, the Senators were perennial Stanley Cup contenders because of his dedication and leadership.”
John Muckler is not in the Hall of Fame, but there’s certainly a case to be made that he deserves to be posthumously inducted as a builder at some point in the future. You don’t spend that much time and have that much success in the game without being a quality person and hockey man. Muckler was a part of the game for six decades and saw just about all there was to see. And he also won just about all there was to be won as well.