|(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)|
After leading the Texas Stars to the Calder Cup, head coach Willie Desjardins and assistant coach Doug Lidster were scooped up by the Canucks to lead the squad after a disappointing year. Last night's contest at the American Airlines Center was the first time Desjardins and Lidster coached against their former organization.
"It's a special game for me," said Coach Desjardins yesterday before the game, a 6-3 Dallas victory. "This is a good organization. I know a lot of guys in the organization, so it is a special place. Right from the start, I knew when this game was going to be."
Desjardins was plucked out of the WHL by Dallas for an associate coaching job behind Marc Crawford in 2010-11. The Crawford era gave way to the Glen Gulutzan era in 2011-12 and Desjardins stayed behind the bench in Big D. He had been in the conversation for the Dallas job but needed that head coaching professional experience according to many.
He got that experience when he took the helm in Cedar Park for the 2012-13 season. It was a peculiar season thanks to the NHL lockout but one that ended in Texas clinching the first seed in the West. An unceremonious exit in Game 5 of the second round gave the team's returning core fuel for a 2013-14 that ended in a Calder Cup.
Coincidentally, one of those who hoisted the Cup in June for Texas played just his second NHL game against the Canucks last night. Curtis McKenzie grew up a Canucks' fan; even at more than eight hours by car, Vancouver was the closest NHL team to his hometown of Golden, BC. He now has an added connection with the coaching staff.
Coach Desjardins is keeping track of his players all over the world, including McKenzie, even with his new responsibilities. He was fully aware of McKenzie's callup and was very proud to hear the news.
"He worked so hard. At one point I didn't even know if he was going to make it into the American League, if he could be a 4th line guy."
McKenzie proved he belonged of course, winning the 2014 Rookie of the Year crown in the AHL.
Coach Lidster extended Desjardins' point, agreeing that he wanted to see his players do well everywhere. He added with a smile, "Except when they play against us."
Joking aside, Lidster is also actively keeping tabs on his former players in Texas and elsewhere.
"I know [Texas] has had some good games to start. I've had some texts with Max, Toby and Morin. You try to keep in touch as much as you can. That's the nature of the hockey world. Sometimes you don't talk to someone for six years and then you end up texting them. It's nice to keep track of them."
Lidster even noted he had reached out to Francis Wathier to congratulate him on the contract in Portland. It's all about keeping connections in the small world of hockey.
Systems clicking in BC
Desjardins and Lidster are bringing the same uptempo game that they are known for to British Columbia. Even in morning skate, Desjardins had the Canucks doing drills with a heavy focus on competition and games to keep things light and engaging. With one coach timing the drills, the white and blue teams competed against each other in a 3-on-0 passing and shooting drill on Eddie Lack. The white team lost and had to put in a few pushups on the ice, but it was all in good fun as everyone skated away with smiles.
"We're getting complete buy-in," said Lidster. "They're trying real hard. It's not rocket science. After a season like last year, a lot of them are struggling with confidence. That's the key thing for me. If you're confident in your game, you can play any system."
Among the holdovers from last season's struggling Canucks was another familiar face to the Texas Stars faithful: Glen Gulutzan.
"It's been an easy transition," said Gulutzan after morning skate yesterday. "It's good for me to see some of the things that they do that I didn't and vice versa. Usually it's not the systems that win but the execution. Every team in the league is playing a little bit differently but 80% of it is the same."
Gulutzan credited Desjardins with being an inclusive coach who is really good at bringing people together.
"He's done a remarkable job of that with this group: what he's implemented and done off-ice. Those are the things that bind teams together."
Desjardins and crew are 3-2-0 after last night's game and will stay in Dallas before heading to St. Louis and beyond on Thursday. The Stars will make two visits to Vancouver, one in December and one in March, but the Canucks will not return to American Airlines Center this year. Well, that is, barring playoffs. And knowing Coach Desjardins' teams, playoffs are probably a decent bet.