Bob Francis always joked that the nameplate outside his office door was affixed by Velcro, a constant reminder of how quickly he would one day be replaced.
That day finally came for the Phoenix Coyotes’ coach Tuesday, when he was fired less than two years after winning the NHL’s Coach of the Year award and being rewarded with a threeyear contract extension.
Rick Bowness, who has been Francis’ top assistant (in charge of defensemen) for the past five seasons, takes over as interim coach tonight when the Coyotes face the Pittsburgh Penguins at Glendale Arena. Coyotes professional scout and former NHL defenseman Tom Kurvers joins the coaching staff to replace Bowness, while assistants Pat Conacher (forwards) and Benoit Allaire (goalies) remain with the team.
The Coyotes sit 11 points out of the playoff race with 20 games left to play.
"Good coaches get relieved of their duties in every sport, and Bob Francis is a good coach and was a good coach for us,’’ said Phoenix general manager Mike Barnett, who gave Francis a public vote of confidence just three weeks ago. "(The reason for the firing) can be summed up in our record. We have a horrendous home record (10-13-5-2), and we’ve been spiraling of late. We felt we needed to make a change.
"If we don’t pull our socks up quickly, we’ll miss the playoffs three times in the last four years.’’
The Coyotes have won just four of their last 21 games (4-13-3-1) and are an embarrassing 4-8-3-2 in 17 games at their new $220 million Glendale Arena, which opened less than two months ago. After selling out the first five games in Glendale, crowds have now tailed off to about 13,000 a game in the sparkling 17,799-seat arena. The final straw came during a humiliating 8-2 loss to Nashville on Saturday — the worst home loss since the team moved to Phoenix in 1996 — when it appeared the team quit on itself and its coach.
Francis gave the team Sunday off, privately rankling Coyotes management who thought a statement that such efforts wouldn’t be tolerated needed to be made. Francis coached one more game, Monday’s 1-1 tie with Anaheim, but the decision on his fate had already been made.
"We just weren’t winning. Our passion and our work ethic of late has been not very good. You can spin that any way you want.’’ Coyotes managing partner Wayne Gretzky said. "The way professional hockey works hasn’t changed in 75 years. Seven (players) usually love the coach, seven guys like the coach and seven guys usually don’t like the coach. It’s the same thing on every team.’’
Francis could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but will address the media before today’s game at the arena. He is still owed about $1.7 million on his contract that runs through the 2005-06 season. Team sources said the two sides have reached a financial settlement that includes a provision — paying Francis about 50 percent of the original agreement — if the NHL suspends play next season due to to labor discord.
"It a tough day,’’ Coyotes winger Mike Johnson said. "Bobby was the Coach of the Year (in 2001-02), and he’s even a better man. But when the team slides, it’s always easier to change coaches than to change 25 players. Bobby meant a lot to me and was a big part of my career. I owe him a lot. I wished I hadn’t missed so many games (51 due to shoulder surgery) so I could have helped him out.’’
Picked to finish near the bottom and even dead last by several preseason hockey publications, the Coyotes surprised many for the first three months and still held a Western Conference playoff spot in early January. But since the team lost bright young defenseman David Tanabe to a season-ending knee injury — and management didn’t bring in a replacement — the team has won only four games since Brian Boucher’s record-setting run of five straight shutouts ended on Jan. 9.
In the last 14 games, Phoenix went and 2-9-2-1 and "The Francis Watch’’ began in earnest.
"You look at our record up to Jan. 15 . . . we’d proven we were a pretty good young hockey club,’’ Gretzky said. "Are we the Detroit Red Wings or the New Jersey Devils? No, but we’re much better than our record indicates and in this business you’ve got to win.’’
Francis won more often and at at better rate than anyone in the 23-year history of the Winnipeg/ Phoenix organization. He was 165-143-60-21 during his tenure, setting club records for victories, games coached (389), winning percentage (.528) and standings points (410). Hired by the previous owner and general manager — Richard Burke and Bobby Smith — he wasn’t expected to survive long into the transition to the new group led by owners Steve Ellman, Jerry Moyes and Gretzky, but proved to have plenty of staying power.
After a Cinderella 95-point season in 2001-02, Francis received The Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year. He joined his father, Hall of Famer Emile Francis, as the only father-son duo to be so honored.
The Coyotes slipped badly last season (31-35-11-5), mostly attributed to losing nearly 400-man games to injury, and the team gutted the payroll during the last year, trading scorers Tony Amonte and Daniel Briere, top defensemen Teppo Numminen and Danny Markov and All-Star goalie Sean Burke for younger, inexpensive players.
Even with Tanabe, Johnson and leading goal scorer Ladislav Nagy (wrist) gone for the season with injuries, Barnett said the team the Coyotes have should be in or close to a playoff spot.
"We’re (11 points) back of a playoff spot,’’ Barnett said. "If you get on a roll and win three in a row, things can change quickly. The days are running out, the number of games are running out . . . but this is a group that now has something to prove to everyone, including themselves.’’