James Dickenson "Dick" Irvin was one of the most significant hockey figures of the 20th century. He initially made a name for himself as one of the game's top centers in the 1920s. Irvin was lauded for his exceptional stickhandling ability, a hard, accurate shot and a cool temperament that kept him out of the penalty box. His on-ice accomplishments earned him selection to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.
Following his playing days, Irvin became one of the finest coaches of his generation.
Irvin had turned pro with the Portland Rosebuds of the PCHA in 1916-17 and made an immediate impact. His 35 goals placed the rookie fourth among the league's snipers. Irvin's professional ambitions were put on hold when he enlisted in the Canadian Army, but since he wasn't sent overseas, Irvin was able to play senior hockey as a soldier. He spent the last year of World War I with the Winnipeg Ypres team and then three seasons with the Regina Vics of the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League.
The Regina Capitals were the benefactors of Irvin's return to the pro ranks in 1921-22. He helped the club win the WCHL title that year, but their Stanley Cup aspirations collapsed when they lost to the Vancouver Millionaires. In 1925-26, the team was transferred to Portland, where it was recreated as the Rosebuds. Irvin starred with 31 goals in 30 matches to tie Bill Cook of Saskatoon for the league lead. When the league disbanded at the end of the year, Irvin was one of several players purchased by the expansion Chicago Black Hawks of the NHL.
Although his finest work as a player was behind him, Irvin still had an impact on the NHL. He was named the Hawks' first captain in 1926-27 and scored an impressive 36 points in 43 contests. That total put him second only to scoring champion Bill Cook of the New York Rangers. Early the next season, Irvin suffered a fractured skull. Even though he returned to play 39 games in 1928-29, he wasn't as effective and decided to retire as a player.
Irvin next became a coach in what proved to be an equally rewarding chapter in his life. It began in 1930-31 with his old NHL club in Chicago, where he helped the team win 24 games in the 44-game schedule. Early in the 1931-32 season, he was lured to Toronto by persuasive owner Conn Smythe. A few months later, Irvin guided the franchise to its first Stanley Cup as the Maple Leafs. Despite not winning the Cup again, he led the squad to the finals six more times before resigning in 1940.
In 1940-41, Irvin was hired to revive a Montreal Canadiens franchise that was floundering on the ice and at the box office, and became one of the key reasons behind the club's return to prominence. In fact, it has often been said that his leadership and vision helped him to save the team from bankruptcy by turning its fortunes around in short order. Irvin was demanding but fair as a bench boss. He quite enjoyed seeing the players practise with vigor and take their frustrations out on one another. The bottom line was that his teams skated with passion. Soon after he took over as coach, Maurice Richard emerged displaying the level of conviction on the ice that Irvin was looking for.
The Habs attained mediocre results during the first two years under Irvin but became a .500 team in 1942-43. The next year they posted a remarkable 38-5-7 record and won their first Stanley Cup since 1930-31. In the 1944-45 season, they posted 38-8-4 but lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the semifinals. Irvin led the Habs to Stanley Cup glory again in 1946 and 1953, and when he stepped aside for the incoming Toe Blake in 1955, the team was on the cusp of winning five straight championships.
Irvin returned to the Black Hawks for the 1955-56 season before retiring with 693 regular-season wins. This impressive total stood at the top of the NHL coaching record list until it was surpassed by Al Arbour and Scotty Bowman in the 1980s. Unfortunately Irvin died in 1957, a year before he took his rightful place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.