Coaching trio shares philosophy

Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal during the Oil Kings season opening announcement at Rexall Place...

Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal during the Oil Kings season opening announcement at Rexall Place on Wednesday, September 22, 2010. (Amber Bracken/QMI Agency)

Lance Hornby, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:16 PM ET

NEWARK, N.J. - The trio's lifespan as Toronto Maple Leafs was short, but the experience provided a common touch that one day would make them better coaches.

This has been one long and satisfying spring for Peter DeBoer, Dallas Eakins and Derek Laxdal, each in sight of his first NHL, AHL and CHL title.

DeBoer's New Jersey Devils can take a giant step toward the Stanley Cup final, likely against the Los Angeles Kings, with a home win Saturday afternoon against the New York Rangers. Eakins' Toronto Marlies were up 1-0 in the Western Conference final against Oklahoma City entering Friday night and Laxdal's Edmonton Oil Kings were opening the Memorial Cup as the WHL's representative in Shawinigan, Que.

DeBoer, after getting drafted 237th overall in 1988, knew he wouldn't soon be seeing the inside of the Leafs dressing room. He was one of the few juniors still hanging around the Montreal Forum when the 12th round wrapped up. The Leaf table was near empty and the Toronto media already had spoken with the big-name picks that year, Tie Domi, Scott Pearson and DeBoer's teammate, goalie Peter Ing.

"They don't even have 12 rounds anymore," DeBoer said. "Dick Duff (then a team executive) was at the table and John Brophy was the coach. But it was last call at the bar on Ste.-Catherine St., and I got out in time for a beer to celebrate."

DeBoer did manage 91 points the next season with the Windsor Spitfires, up from 41 in 1987-88 but, upon turning pro, never made it beyond the minors. He became a junior hockey coach in the mid-1990s, going through the ranks with Detroit/Plymouth and Kitchener before becoming the coach of the Florida Panthers in 2008. His slow climb gave him an appreciation for players who did it the hard way.

The Devils have the requisite stars in Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias and Martin Brodeur but, to get this far, needed help from undrafted David Clarkson, warhorse Bryce Salvador and many others who abide by the franchise's pick-and-shovel philosophy.

"Anybody for me who has to battle, scratch and claw to get where they are, you have a tremendous amount of respect for," DeBoer said Friday. "The more of those guys you can have around your team and in your room, the better."

During Laxdal's 51 games as a Leaf, he was most comfortable under the coach whom many pampered Leafs had detested -- the fiery John Brophy.

"John demanded hard work," Laxdal told QMI's Robert Tychkowski on Friday, before the Oil Kings' Memorial Cup opener. "That's a little life lesson; you have to work hard at everything you do, if you're playing hockey or if you're working in the trades. Play for the love of the game, don't play for the paycheque.

"If you love the game and you're playing it for the right reason, you're going to take a little bit of Broph and implement it. There are coaches I played for who I didn't respect. I told myself that I would do this differently (from them). That's the way a lot of coaches get involved, they take a little piece of every guy they've had. (Waterloo Warriors') Don McKee and John Brophy are the biggest influences on me.

"You look at the guys who are successful in any leagues now, they're the people persons, they're psychologists, they know how to treat people. These kids are very vulnerable at a young age. You have to almost make sure that you say hi to them every day, make eye contact, let them know that you're there."

Eakins has worked at motivation a lot longer and likely will get to the NHL ranks ahead of Laxdal, especially if the Marlies go on to capture the Calder Cup. Forget that the Marlies are excelling in every area the Ron Wilson-coached Leafs were weakest in, they just play sound hockey -- period.

Eakins is the consummate players' coach, having toiled on defence for almost 20 minor-league and NHL teams. His 18 games as a Leaf came during the Pat Quinn era, but he was a student of an earlier legend, Roger Neilson. His nomadic experiences and his own difficult upbringing steeled him and his players have benefited. In a win-starved hockey city that is often too quick to embrace saviours, Eakins has made the Marlies rough it and earn their accolades.

"We've given people second chances, we've stuck with them, we've tried to fix problems," Eakins said before the AHL playoffs.

"Now it's not so much about development anymore. It's 'this is how it's going to be in the NHL.'

"Playing for the Leafs and coaching here has shown me the great passion that our fans have. That has inspired me in so many ways and continues to drive me to prepare our teams the best that I can so that our city can experience a winning team."

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos