Monday, June 23, 2014

Will Willie be a Star in Vancouver?

Dickson Liong

The offseason of change continues for the NHL's Vancouver Canucks.
Last season, the Canucks, who signed Willie Desjardins to a four-year contract as head coach on Monday, weren't the high-scoring, highly entertaining team their fans had grown accustomed to watching. Instead, they struggled to score goals and played a much more defensive, slow-paced style.
People who spent their hard-earned money to buy tickets were beginning to lose interest by season’s end.
If Vancouver had won with that style, things may have been different. But the Canucks finished 36-35-11, which wasn't good enough to make the playoffs.
Fans weren’t impressed; neither was ownership.
So . . . there were changes, most notably the firings of general manager Mike Gillis and head coach John Tortorella. The Canucks had decided to go in a different direction.
Trevor Linden, a centre for 16 seasons with the team, was named the president of hockey operations on April 9, and he introduced Jim Benning as the team's general manager on May 23.
The two had many beliefs in common, one being that they want to provide a team that will entertain the fans again.
“When you think about what's going on at Rogers Arena, it's on the ice (and) with us,” Linden explained at a town hall meeting for season-ticket holders on June 17. “We want to bring excitement back to the game and to the ice and have a product that is fun to watch, (a game) that is coached the way we want it, and that the players are excited about playing. That's going to energize the building.”
No matter what sport it is, fans want to enjoy what they're watching. They want to feel that they have received fair value for what they have paid.
Linden’s mother, Edna, is no different.
She, of course, is a big hockey fan, especially of the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers. Considering the Linden family is from Medicine Hat, it's understandable that she would be a passionate follower of the team. Let's not forget, too, that her son played for the Tigers.
Yes, Edna loves attending Tigers games. Perhaps one of her most enjoyable times as a fan came when Medicine Hat won the Ed Chynoweth Cup by sweeping the Everett Silvertips and earning the chance to play in the 2004 Memorial Cup tournament, which was played host to by the Kelowna Rockets.
Most Tigers fans followed the team’s run on TV or online or via radio or newspaper. Edna wasn't one of them.
She, along with some friends and family, made the trip to Kelowna. Desjardins, the Tigers’ head coach at the time, met with the family for the first time during the tournament.
Medicine Hat failed to win the Memorial Cup, which eventually went to the host Rockets, but one thing was for sure -- Desjardins had proven he had the ability to lead a team to success and he did it in a fashion that was fun to watch.
Desjardins proved that again as he coached the Tigers to the Memorial Cup one more time three seasons later, this time losing to the host Vancouver Giants 3-1 in the championship game.
After eight seasons with the Tigers, two of them winding up with WHL titles and Memorial Cup appearances, it was time to move up.
The NHL’s Dallas Stars named him their associate coach in 2010-11, and he worked under head coach Marc Crawford. However, Crawford was fired and Glen Gulutzan, the head coach of their AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, was promoted to replace him, with Desdjardins staying on.
But even then, Desjardins wanted to be a head coach. So after two seasons with Dallas, Desjardins chose to go to the AHL with Texas, which plays out of Austin.
He was 55 years of age at the time and having his doubts as to whether he would be given a chance to coach in the NHL.
But, just like he did with Medicine Hat, he led the Stars to success and proved adept at developing players for the big club. Last season, Desjardins helped Texas to 48-18-10 regular-season record, and the Stars then went on to win the Calder Cup as AHL champions.
While Desjardins was chasing that cup, there were NHL teams making coaching changes. But with the Stars in the playoffs, those teams were having to wait if wanting to speak with him.
The Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes either weren’t interested or weren’t willing to wait for him, perhaps afraid they might lose out on other candidates.
So by the time Texas won the AHL title on June 17, only the Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins were still without head coaches.
Luckily for Desjardins, both teams were interested and received permission from Dallas to speak to him.
Texas scheduled an event to celebrate its championship on June 19. However, Desjardins had to skip it as he flew to Pittsburgh to meet with management, something that caused some observers to speculate that he was going to be named the head coach of the Penguins.
It wasn't to be, though.
Instead, Desjardins picked the Canucks.
He had spoken to Linden last week, then met with team officials on the weekend.
“I've been looking forward to this opportunity for a long time,” Desjardins said at a press conference on Monday. “To be part of such a great organization and an NHL city is just a real honour, and I can't say enough about how fortunate I am to get this chance.”
That being said, why did he turn down the Penguins' offer to be the head coach, something that would have allowed him to work with Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player in the NHL?
“(The Penguins) are a great organization,” Desjardins stated. “Jim Rutherford, their general manager, is a great man. There's just a couple things that didn't work out. It wasn't his fault and it wasn't mine, it was just something that wouldn't work. Crosby is a heck of a player, but for me, when I looked at what was
here, I looked at the two guys that are leading this. I (also) looked at the quality of the players. It's a Canadian city, with (great) fans. It was a great choice to come here.”
The Canucks are hoping that Desjardins is able to create an entertaining, competitive style that will lead to victories.
Just like he did with the Tigers back when they entertained their fans, including Linden's mother.

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