Thirty years ago, about nine months into his career as president and general manager of the New Jersey Devils, Lou Lamoriello hired his first NHL coach, a fiery, 35-year-old redhead named Jim Schoenfeld.
“It was a pretty bold move on Lou’s part,’’ Schoenfeld, now a senior vice president and assistant general manager with the Rangers. “My first NHL gig was with Buffalo, and I was fired after 43 games.’’
Buffalo didn’t improve after Schoenfeld was fired and finished last in the league the season after Schoenfeld’s departure. So when Devils TV color man Peter McNab — the son of Lamoriello’s predecessor, Max McNab — recommended Schoenfeld to Lamoriello as a potential replacement for then-coach Doug Carpenter, Lamoriello listened.
The two men did not know each other, but Lamoriello hired Schoenfeld in January 1988 and the Devils went on a wild ride that included the first playoff berth in franchise history. It also featured one of the organization’s most iconic moments in the infamous “donut incident” between Schoenfeld and referee Don Koharski.
The story of the donut incident has been told and retold during the past 30 years. The basic facts are these: After losing Game 3 of the Wales Conference finals against the Bruins at home, Schoenfeld went to the hallway to confront Koharski about what he felt was poor officiating. Koharski fell as he was walking to the officials’ locker room, accused Schoenfeld of pushing him, and the two men began shouting at each other. That’s when Schoenfeld yelled at the referee, “You fell, you fat pig! Have another donut!’’
It became one of the enduring images of the NHL of that era.
The league suspended Schoenfeld without a hearing. The Devils filed for an injunction with a local judge who stayed the suspension pending a hearing. The officials for Game 4 refused to go on the ice with Schoenfeld behind the Devils’ bench, so the Devils drafted three off-ice officials to work the game.
The Devils won Game 4 to tie the series 2-2. After a hearing, the league suspended Schoenfeld for Game 5. Lamoriello coached Game 5, which was won by the Bruins, who won Game 6 and went to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Schoenfeld isn’t proud of his actions in the incident. Though videotape of the incident exonerated him from the charge of pushing Koharski, he admits his verbal abuse of the referee was wrong, and he said if he could do it over, he would behave differently. But he remains eternally grateful for the way Lamoriello and Devils owner John McMullen stood up for him.
“They believed that I hadn’t pushed [Koharski],’’ Schoenfeld said. “And so there was never a moment where I felt that I was out on a limb by myself. There was never a moment where I felt that I didn’t get complete support by Mr. McMullen, Lou and the organization.’’
The next season, 1988-89, the Devils took a step back and missed the playoffs. Lamoriello fired Schoenfeld 14 games into the 1989-90 season.
“As I look back, he showed great restraint in not firing me in the second year,’’ Schoenfeld said.
He never held a grudge and has remained friends with Lamoriello.