Rebel with a cause

JASON HILLS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

Jesse Wallin stands behind the bench of the Red Deer Rebels, faced with the challenge of slowly rebuilding the franchise into the powerhouse it once was.

It's a big challenge for the first-year head coach, but Wallin will handle it like he has any obstacle he's had to overcome.

"Being the new head coach of this team is something I am excited about," Wallin recently said.

"The Rebels were the only junior team I played for, and they were like family to me and I was always proud to be a Red Deer Rebel."

Wallin played for Red Deer from 1994 to 1998 and his junior days were filled with rewarding and even life-altering moments.

Just four months before he was about to start his Western Hockey League career in 1994, his father, Brian, took his own life after battling several years of mental illness. Wallin, just 16 at the time, struggled through that and went on to become one of the premier defencemen in the WHL, which eventually made him a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 1996.

During his time in Red Deer, he hosted a series of seminars about opening up and talking about his father's struggles with mental illness.

His work off the ice earned him the Canadian Hockey League Humanitarian of the Year award in 1997.

"With his illness and his death, it was something I felt very passionate about. Seeing him go through it made me want to know more about it so I could help others who have experienced it," said Wallin.

"I saw on a daily basis what my father went through dealing with different medications and the different reactions people around him would give him. I found it was a way to honour him, and it was a great way for me to heal and get it off my chest."

Wallin represented Canada twice at the World Junior Hockey Championships in 1997 and '98, winning gold in '97.

However, while returning to Red Deer for his final year of junior after a successful training camp in Detroit and just a few kilometres from the Centrium (Rebels home rink), he was involved in a serious car accident that sent his hockey career into a tailspin.

He was expected to dominate that season and continue his path to the NHL. Instead, he had to deal with a series of bad injuries that limited his NHL career to just 49 games.

"My goal was to be the best defenceman in the (WHL) that year, and I only ended up playing 14 games that year, and I wasn't 100% for any of them," said Wallin.

"It certainly did set me back in my hockey career, but I am still here today, and I can be thankful for that."

His career took another hit in 2003, when he was a victim of a vicious attack in an AHL game that abruptly ended his playing career as a result of a severe concussion.

Just like when he was 16 and had to grieve the loss of his father, at age 25 Wallin had to deal with the loss of his promising hockey career.

"All those experiences shape you as a person, and I hope I have become a better person. I want to be able to pass some of those life lessons on to our young men in the dressing room so that they can overcome some of their big struggles in hockey, and in life," said Wallin.

After taking some time away from the game, Wallin has been on the bench of the Rebels as an assistant coach the past three seasons working under Brent and Brian Sutter, before taking over as coach this year.

"I don't think there is anything more rewarding than being a coach in this league. It's very challenging, but it's very rewarding when they pick things up that you teach them," said Wallin.

"I am very confident we can get this team back to being a contender in this league. It will take some time and some effort. But in life, every challenge is like that."

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THREE STARS

WEEK'S TOP PERFORMERS

1. Joel Broda, Warriors -- Five goals and six points as Moose Jaw went 3-0.

2. Kent Simpson, Silvertips -- Shut out the Portland Winter Hawks in first WHL game.

3. Landon Ferraro, Rebels -- Young sniper has points in every game this season.

GO FIGURE

PLAYIN' THE NUMBERS GAME

3

The number of times the Portland Winter Hawks have been shut out in the first three games of the season. Spokane (3-0), Everett (2-0) and Vancouver (5-0) have all blanked the WHL's worst team.


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