Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Molleken, Blades living On The Edge

Is Lorne Molleken of the Saskatoon Blades faced with the biggest challenge
of his coaching career this season?

(Photo by Steve Hiscock)
Lorne Molleken has long been the best-dressed coach in the Western Hockey League.
OK. Guy Charron of the Kamloops Blazers is right there, too.
But now Molleken is the best-dressed WHL coach in show business.
Molleken, the general manager and head coach of the Saskatoon Blades, shone in the debut of On The Edge, the Sportsnet TV show, on Friday night.
The Blades will be the host team in the 2013 Memorial Cup in May. And, yes, Sportsnet owns the TV rights, thus On The Edge, which all involved are hoping will drum up some interest in major junior hockey’s championship tournament.
The eight-part TV series focuses on the Blades in what almost certainly will be Molleken’s final season as a WHL coach. And make no mistake about it — Molleken is going to be the star of this show. The tear rolling down his right cheek as Episode 1 ended guarantees that. The only difference between Molleken and, say, Pacino or De Niro is that one of them wasn’t acting.
Although Molleken looks at least 10 years younger, he is 56 and has been in the coaching game since the late-1980s. Moose Jaw. Saskatoon. Cape Breton. Hamilton. Chicago. Regina. San Jose. Pittsburgh. Saskatoon.
He is one of four men in WHL history to have been behind a bench for at least 1,000 games as a head coach. Sheesh, how many bus miles is that? (The others are Ken Hodge, Ernie (Punch) McLean and Don Nachbaur, who got there Saturday with the Spokane Chiefs.)
This is Molleken’s ninth season as the Blades’ head coach. All that time in one place. Patsy will be forever grateful.
The Blades spent the last week touring through the B.C. Division, and, while watching Molleken work the bench in Kamloops on Friday night, it struck me that this likely was his last time here.
While no one is talking, at least not out loud, you just have to know that the chances are good that this is Molleken’s last rodeo. Sometime after the 2013 Memorial Cup ends, don’t be surprised if Molleken turns the head-coaching duties over to David Struch, his long-time right-hand man.
Molleken will stay on as general manager — there is little doubt that owner Jack Brodsky would leave him in that office for as long as he wants.
If this is Molleken’s last season as the Blades’ head coach, it no doubt will go down as the most taxing.
Before it’s done, this could also turn into the best coaching job of Molleken’s career. Just holding things together and getting to this point without sinking has to be considered a success of sorts.
There is enough pressure on a Memorial Cup host team without (a) getting off to a horrible start, and (b) having a TV camera follow every move of every member of the organization.
And being the subject of this series has put a bull’s-eye on their backs. You don’t think the WHL’s other 21 teams want to be the made-for-TV stars?
With the Blades having gotten off to a slow start, it means that every move Molleken makes ends up getting picked to pieces.
When he gave the captaincy to forward Brenden Walker, who had been acquired from the Brandon Wheat Kings in the offseason, just three games into the season, a lot of observers raised their right eyebrows. Both eyebrows went up when Walker was told to pick his own alternates. And brows furrowed when defenceman Duncan Siemens, last season’s captain, came out of it without even an ‘A’.
When Molleken gave the Vancouver Giants first- and third-round draft picks and a player (forward Travis McEvoy, 18) for forward Nathan Burns, 19, well, general managers across the WHL shrugged their shoulders and looked to the heavens.
During the summer, Molleken also brought in forwards Shane McColgan and Jessey Astles from the Kelowna Rockets. Also new to the Blades are forwards Adam Kambeitz (Red Deer Rebels) and Logan Harland (Vancouver) and defenceman Graeme Craig (Swift Current Broncos).
The roster in Kamloops on Friday night also included seven other players who are new to Saskatoon, although a couple were there simply because of injuries.
The point is that this is a team in transition, a team still searching for an identity, a team that isn’t going to settle down until the Jan. 10 trade deadline has come and gone. The leadership group has undergone change. There are players on the roster who still don’t understand their roles. Like someone standing over a jigsaw puzzle at the kitchen table, Molleken is trying to put it all together.
And he’s trying to do it with a TV camera in his face.
Having the camera around may have seemed like a good idea in July. But when the Blades got off to a horrid start and changes were made and the camera was right there, it was a distraction.
When players go walking through a city’s downtown streets and the TV camera accompanies them, of course it’s a distraction.
Sure, it makes for compelling TV, but it has been a distraction of epic proportions, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.
The Blades went 3-2-0 in B.C., limping home Sunday after absorbing a 9-2 licking at the hands of the Rockets in Kelowna.
Yes, Molleken has some work to do. His toughest job, though, will be making that TV camera appear to be invisible.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)

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