Friday, 31 May 2019

It just feels right – Tigers, Desjardins together again

Willie Desjardins pictured in the 2007 Memorial Cup game program.
    Would the Lethbridge Hurricanes ever try to get a Tim Hortons built next to the Canalta Centre in an attempt to make Willie Desjardins late for a practice or a game?
    The Hurricanes might not have put in that type of work to disrupt a rival, because the Tim Hortons pitfall is naturally present due to the lay of the land.
    A Tim Hortons sits on the east side of the Canalta Centre in the northern tip of Medicine Hat in the community of Crescent Heights. You can’t miss it when driving to the rink via that route.
    If you approach the Canalta Centre from the west via Redcliff, there is a Tim Hortons in your path. The famed donut and coffee chain has Desjardins boxed in.
    All joking aside, the Medicine Hat Tigers officially announced on Friday that Desjardins has returned to the team to become the club’s head coach and general manager once again.
    The Tigers parted ways with their former long time head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston on Thursday.
    Desjardins was the Tigers head coach from 2002 to 2010 and also held the role of general manager from 2005 to 2010. During that time, he compiled a 323-176-60 regular season record as Tigers head coach, and he guided the club to WHL titles in 2004 and 2007.
    When you saw the video of Desjardins during his introductory press conference on Friday, it felt right. It feels like Medicine Hat is the place he is meant to be in, and the Tigers are the team he is supposed to lead.
Pictures from the Tigers glory times under Willie Desjardins.
    The Tim Hortons joke actually comes from an episode during the 2005-06 season. The Tigers were in preparations leading up to a key regular season game with the Calgary Hitmen. The two clubs were battling for first place in the overall WHL standings.
    During a practice session at The Arena, Desjardins called a special team meeting for 2 p.m. the next day regarding this important game. No one knew about this meeting until Desjardins announced it.
    At the time, the Tigers usually arrived at The Arena for practice between 2:30 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. At 2:45 p.m. they would have a meeting that lasted about 15 minutes and the team hits the ice at 3 p.m.
    Anyways, the Tigers players and coaches arrive for this 2 p.m. meeting, and Desjardins is missing. Around 2:15 p.m., overage forward Tommy Maxwell calls Desjardins on his cell phone.
    Desjardins picks up right away and the two have a chat for 45 seconds. Maxwell asks Desjardins what he was up to.
    Desjardins said he was in line at the Tim Hortons located two blocks from The Arena buying a sandwich. Desjardins asked Maxwell what he was up to.
    Maxwell said he was in the Tigers dressing room with the team, and they were ready for this special 2 p.m. meeting and that everyone was waiting for him.
    A moment of silence passes. Desjardins lets loose with an explanative and said he would be right there.
    The Tigers team that season was full of great players who were characters that had character in captain Kris Russell, Derek Dorsett, Maxwell, Cam Barker, Matt Keetley, Jerrid Sauer, Kevin Undershute, Kieran Block, Daine Todd, Roman Psurny, Brett Robertson, David Schlemko, Gord Baldwin, Brennan Bosch and Tyler Ennis to name a few. For the next two weeks, you can envision them giving Desjardins the gears saying it was important to be on time in a humourous way.
Picture of another highlight from Willie Desjardins time with the Tigers.
    Anytime Desjardins would walk into a room, you could almost hear, “Hey, coach is late. That’s a fine.”
    Darren Helm of today’s age would engage in those jabs too, but he was more of a quiet type back then.
    Anyways, that episode with the Tim Hortons near The Arena seems to grow into a taller tale as the years pass. Desjardins was late for a special team meeting he called, because he made a Tim Hortons stop.
    Desjardins will dispute the amount of minutes he was actually late, but I think the union is there to agree it was at least 15 minutes. It is possible other details from that episode get exaggerated as time passes.
    Even in that small humourous spot in time, it was easy to see some of the factors that made Desjardins so successful.
    One is the fact the 62-year-old product of Climax, Sask., is able to get information across to his players. They did realize it was important to be on time for meetings or on the ice to be in spots at the right time when plays develop.
    Another thing it shows is Desjardins has humility. He recognizes he makes mistakes too, and all you can do is correct them and move forward.
    Desjardins knows when to allow the players to be themselves and when it is time to focus on work. He was comfortable enough to let players give him some light-hearted jabs and create some fun around the facility.
    He wasn’t one of those coaches that took himself so seriously that something like this wouldn’t be allowed.
    Still when it was time to focus on the task at hand, he was able to get that message across and everyone went to work.
A picture of another Tigers memory of Willie Desjardins’ era with the team.
    Above all, he always tried to ensure the rink was the best place to be. That atmosphere was one of the reasons everyone was on time for that special meeting but him. It just slipped his mind that day.
    The Tigers won a lot during Desjardins first run with the team.
    What made the journey so special during those years was the fact it was filled with so many of those fun stories. Everyone enjoyed the journey, and if they could have lived at The Arena, they would have.
    During that run, he became revered as the greatest coach the Tigers ever had. Desjardins was a great coach, but he was even a better human.
    He is a first rate person who had compassion and could help people in their toughest circumstances. Back in the 2009-10 season, the Tigers acquired power forward Cole Grbavac in a trade with the Kamloops Blazers.
    Grbavac was going through some troubles, and he needed to spend time away from the team. When he rejoined the club, he went forward at full speed.
    Grbavac never said what he was going through but said he was thankful Desjardins was present at that point in his life and he owed him so much. Grbavac would be the Tigers captain in his final season of major junior eligibility in 2011-12.
    In July of 2010, Desjardins left the Tigers to be an associate coach with the NHL’s Dallas Stars. A lot of thought went into the decision including the notion of staying with the Tigers and possibly having the longevity Brian Kilrea had in coaching the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s.
    Desjardins knew there was great value to remaining in junior and making a positive impact on players aged 16 to 20 making their way in life.
    It was these types of things that made Desjardins enduring to the community of Medicine Hat.
    It was those things that made people miss him and always created this longing that he would return.
Willie Desjardins pictured in the Medicine Hat News.
    When I was last in Medicine Hat in late March, it caught me off guard how many of my friends were out of work due to the energy sector economy being down. When you talked hockey, you could tell people there wanted him to come back and be the head coach and general manager of the Tigers.
    It was like Desjardins return would be this beacon of light and hope that better days were coming. People remembered that genuine and special type of humanity Desjardins possessed that most don’t have.
    It is easy to see on social media lines the fans in Medicine Hat received what they wanted. Desjardins is back.
    By the sounds of it, people who are just scraping by are now going to do what they can to put together money to buy tickets for Tigers games. Last season, the Tigers averaged 3,121 fans at the Canalta Centre, which seats 6,016 spectators.
    For many years, the Tigers soldout their old home rink The Arena at 4,006 spectators.
    As the Tigers enter their 50th season, Desjardins return provides hope. The dreams of brighter days and endless possibilities have returned to Medicine Hat.

Clouston had great run with Tigers facing difficult odds

Shaun Clouston is the Tigers all time leader in coaching victories.
    I still chuckle at the humours jabs sent my way from media colleagues on the WHL trail that I hired Shaun Clouston as the Medicine Hat Tigers head coach.
    The same goes for Brad McEwen, when he was hired to be the team’s general manager. Just to be clear, team owners Darrell and Brent Maser did in fact make those hires.
    In July of 2010, Willie Desjardins stepped down from holding both of those positions to become an associate coach with the NHL’s Dallas Stars.
    I thought back to those days, when Clouston parted ways with the Tigers on Thursday leaving behind the roles of head coach and general manager. McEwen left the team back in August of 2014.
    On Friday, Desjardins returned to the Tigers to be the team’s head coach and general manager once again.
    Desjardins vaulted to legendary status in Medicine Hat having guided the Tigers to WHL titles in 2004 and 2007. With the success Desjardins had back then, you always wondered when a sound opportunity would arise that he would make the jump to the NHL.
    When that day came, the Tigers were in position to fill the void. Clouston had joined the team before the start of the 2003-04 campaign as an assistant coach, and he was promoted to associate coach before the start of the 2005-06 season.
    He was set to take on the head coaching duties.
    McEwen was a Tigers head scout and had a successful track record as a WHL general manager. He was ready to fill that spot.
    After Desjardins stepped down, Clouston and McEwen took on the respective roles of head coach and general manager about three days later. I had known both for a lengthy stretch of time before they assumed those positions.
    At the time, I was the beat writer for the Medicine Hat News who covered the Tigers. Many media colleagues covering the WHL would joke saying I made those hires so I wouldn’t have to get used to someone new holding those roles that might not be media friendly.
    My media colleagues also joked that I wanted to ensure I kept covering playoff action in April. The presence of Clouston and McEwen would ensure the Tigers kept winning.
Shaun Clouston explains a point on the Tigers bench.
    Both were great guys, and I admit I wanted them to succeed. Good feelings aside, I was aware they were stepping into a tough situation following Desjardins.
    While it is a tough job to take a struggling team and make that club a winner, I believe it is even tougher to take over a winning program and keep the success coming.
    When you take over a winner, fans have a built in expectation that they want to see success now. In order to come out on even footing, Clouston and McEwen would have to guide the Tigers to a WHL championship and a Memorial Cup title.
    Anything short of that would be viewed as a disappointment.
    In following Desjardins, their position was similar to that of Steve Young when he had to succeed Joe Montana as quarterback of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, or Danny White when he had to follow Roger Staubach as quarterback of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
    The expectations for the successors in all cases were always going to be unfair to some degree.
    In August of 2012, Clouston added the duties as general manager to go with his duties as head coach. McEwen moved to the role of assistant general manager and took on duties as the club’s head scout. In August of 2014, McEwen left the Tigers to become a scout with the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
    Looking back to July of 2010, I was aware of what Clouston and McEwen could be in for. From my end, I wanted to ensure they received a fair chance.
    I wanted to make note of the noise when things didn’t go right but try not to let it affect how I graded the team’s performance.
    Of course, Clouston held the head coach role for nine seasons and was also the general manager for the last seven of those campaigns. In the NFL analogy, he mirrored what White did with the Cowboys by winning but not winning enough.
    White quarterbacked the Cowboys to three straight appearances in the NFC title game from 1980 to 1982, but the Cowboys were unable to advance to the Super Bowl negating any chance to win it.
    Clouston became the all-time leader in regular season head coaching wins with the Tigers. The 51-year-old product of Viking, Alta., put together a stellar 375-241-46 regular season coaching record.
Shaun Clouston tracks play in the defensive zone.
    Under his guidance, the Tigers advanced to the WHL’s Eastern Conference Championship series in 2011 and 2014, but the squad wasn’t able to earn a berth in the WHL final.
    I thought the Tigers had a great shot to potentially win the WHL title and advance to the Memorial Cup in 2010-11, which was the first campaign after Desjardins departed.
    The Tigers were plagued by injuries that season. In the 20 seasons I’ve covered the WHL, I had never seen a team deal with as many injuries as the Tigers did in 2010-11.
    I believe there were only three occasions, when they hit the ice with everyone on the roster being available to play. Some days it felt like Clouston came to the rink, asked Tigers athletic therapist Mikki Lanuk who was healthy and proceeded to make out the lines for that day.
    That campaign was one of Clouston’s best coaching performances as the Tigers managed to post the fifth best record in the WHL’s regular season at 46-18-4-4 despite all the injuries. Medicine Hat advanced to the Eastern Conference Championship series before being swept by the Kootenay Ice.
    The Tigers were in a great position to contend for the WHL title again in the 2016-17 campaign, when the club posted the second best regular season record in the league at 51-20-1.
    In the second round of the playoffs, the Tigers fell in a series-deciding Game 7 to their archrivals the Lethbridge Hurricanes 5-4 in overtime. Hurricanes captain Tyler Wong scoring the winner in extra time.
    Had the Tigers won that game, it might have given them a momentum shot to ultimately win the league title.
    As the years progressed, the vocal critics of Clouston came out of the woodworks in Medicine Hat because the Tigers didn’t win enough. With that said, there are a lot of teams in the WHL that wish they had the record the Tigers did with Clouston as head coach.
    It seemed the critics would harp heavily any time a player came up with a trade request for not getting enough ice time. Clouston handled all of those situations honestly saying exactly how they came up.
    The critics were silent when a large host of former players and current players congratulated Clouston when he became the Tigers all-time leader in regular season coaching victories. The number of players passing on congrats made the number of players looking for a trade look really small.
Shaun Clouston tracks play in the centre ice zone.
    Even when Clouston parted ways with the Tigers on Thursday, he received well wishes over social media lines from a number of former players.
    He cared about the players he coached and hoped he could help them become better people. I remember how tough it was when he traded Boston Leier in his overage year in 2013-14, which was the correct move to make at the time regarding roster composition.
    Leier was a favourite in the dressing room and amongst the team coaches and staffers, and I recall Clouston saying he didn’t feel good making that deal.
    Away from the rink, Clouston is a star father to his children. He cherishes time he could spend with them.
    If you couldn’t call him in the evenings due to his mobile phone being off, he was ensuring he set a boundary so he could focus on being dad.
    Clouston is a great hockey coach. The concept of being a unit of five in all three zones is something that is stuck in my head, because it was something he always went over with his players. A lot of his former players will recall various success factors or goals the team aimed to achieve game in and game out to pile up wins.
    He is also one of the most genuine persons I’ve come across in this world. We had some real good visits at Starbucks talking about all sorts of things in life.
    As for a bonus point, he was the head coach of the Tri-City Americans when they brought Shannon Szabados to training camp before the start of the 2002-03 campaign. I think it would be safe to say most WHL head coaches at that time would view bringing a female player to training camp as unthinkable.
    Szabados was in camp because she deserved to be there. Clouston was able to joke he was doing pretty good in goal one game due to the fact Carey Price and Szabados were his netminders.
    When the Tigers staffing changes were made during Desjardins departure in 2010, McEwen told me how coaches and managers do have expiry dates with teams even when they are successful.
    The Tigers put up a solid 35-27-4-2 record last season despite suffering some key injuries down the stretch. They fell 4-2 in a best-of-seven first round playoff series to the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Shaun Clouston, middle, oversees the Tigers bench in the 2017 playoffs.
    Desjardins was a left a good hand to take the Tigers into their 50th anniversary season.
    After 16 seasons with the Tigers, Clouston hit his expiry date with the club. In this day and age in sports, to stay with one team for 16 seasons is an eternity.
    This door closed for Clouston, but you can bet others will open. He is too good of a coach and a person to stay out of the sport for long.
    If he wants to continue working in hockey, you can be sure something will materialize for him.

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