Interim Leafs head coach caught in middle of controversy

Sean Dooley, the son of the Nelson Leafs president, is replacing departed head coach David McLellan.

Leafs interim head coach Sean Dooley.

Sean Dooley is the first to admit he’s in a difficult position.

Dooley was named the interim head coach of the Nelson Leafs after David McLellan resigned Wednesday citing interference from the board of directors in hockey operations as the primary reason for his exit.

Dooley, who is also the son of team president John Dooley and was an assistant coach prior to his unexpected promotion, said he was been caught in the middle of a deteriorating relationship between the board of directors and the coaching staff this fall.

“It was awkward,” Sean said in an interview with the Star on Thursday. “There were certain conversations I removed myself from or I wouldn’t be a part of. There were certain meetings that went on between the executive and the coaching staff that I wasn’t part of because there is a conflict there. It’s been awkward, for sure.”

Dooley was alone on the bench for most of the Leafs’ 4-2 loss Wednesday night against the Braves in Spokane. Fellow assistant coach Greg Andrusak also resigned prior to the game.

That meant Dooley was the one who had to break the news to the team. He said he spoke to the players before they left and that they took it well.

“There was a good mood and good attitude on the bus, because whether we like it or not, this got into the dressing room,” said Dooley. “They knew things were going on. Dave and Greg made comments to the team in practice and everything else, just saying different things about the executive and the organization and these meanings. That’s not right. That’s unprofessional. There’s no need for that team to be dragged into that because it had nothing to do with them and it wasn’t their fault.”

Dooley has deep ties to the franchise.

He helped the team out as a kid and later played for the Leafs. After a stint playing in Ireland and Scotland, he worked on junior player development programs with the IIHF and the Boston Bruins. Dooley returned as an assistant coach with the Leafs for the 2010-11 season.

Dooley, who concedes he has personal relationships with the executive, said he never witnessed the board interfering in hockey decisions, but did hear about it during coaching meetings. He added he thought relations between McLellan and the board took a turn for the worse after Nelson’s 9-0 loss to Castlegar on Dec. 2 and a contentious meeting between the two parties on Dec. 3.

“In my opinion, that’s the governing body of the hockey team and there has to be respect there,” said Dooley. “There’s honest questions asked that just got pushed off, and it got personal … The focus turned on he said this, or she said that kind of thing. It was just a really toxic, unhealthy environment for everyone involved.”

Dooley has his own ideas about how the team should run.

He wants more focus on the defensive side of the game, a suggestion that’s apparent to anyone who’s watched the Leafs win just three times in their last 18 games. The Leafs’ blue-line has been hampered by injuries and absences this season. At Spokane, on-ice injuries to Kyle Chernenkoff and Cole Arcuri — as well as Austin Anselmo serving the second of a two-game suspension — meant the Leafs had just three defenceman available to play.

Whether or not Dooley stays on as head coach – the Leafs said in a statement Saturday they intend to make a decision on a permanent replacement prior to their game Dec. 30 against Beaver Valley – he stressed his concern is for the players following McLellan’s departure. He said the GM should be open to hearing from the board about off-ice issues, and that too many roster moves will make life hard for whoever McLellan’s replacement is.

“I’ll say this: at a junior hockey level when you’ve released 14 players in the first half of the season, that’s astronomical,” said Dooley. “It’s easy to say I recruited and I did this and I did that. And I want to say this on the record: I like Dave. Dave was a friend of mine, and I like Greg too. It’s sad that it came to this and it got nasty and I’m dragged into this.

“At the same time, I know Dave, yeah he went a lot and got guys. But what wasn’t happening from my view, and I’ve been there longer than both those guys put together, there was no player development. There was no team development.”