Strong supporting cast for Kilrea

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

The Hall of Fame coach has had a Hall of Fame entourage.

From team owners to assistant coaches to his old friends to the billets who have opened their doors to his players, Brian Kilrea has surrounded himself in great company the past three-plus decades.

Howard Darwin, Earl Montagano and Jeff Hunt have indeed been the "friends" who wouldn't fire him that Kilrea refers to when asked about the key to his longevity.

And his assistants have been as loyal to him as Kilrea's been to the guys who signs his cheques.

These days, NHL teams have as many as six coaches on staff. The head guy. A couple of assistants. A goalie coach. A strength and conditioning coach. A video coach.

Kilrea has had eight assistants accompanying him through his entire 32-year ride as 67's hockey boss.

For the first decade or so, Kilrea handled the GM and coaching duties alone. Then he hired the late, great Gordie Hamilton to sit shotgun. After "Gordie Ham," Kilrea asked Bert O'Brien to be his assistant. Peter Lee became the third man behind the bench for the 1993-94 season before taking over as coach after Kilrea's first retirement. When Kilrea and O'Brien came back in 1995, they had former 67's winger Peter Gaw join them. When Gaw married and moved to Florida, Kilrea hired Vince Mallette, who hung around for nine years before taking the head coaching job in Peterborough.

BYRNE WILL TAKE OVER

To replace Mallette, Kilrea turned to the Nepean Raiders GM/coach, Chris Byrne, who will be his successor.

Former 67's great Tim Higgins gave the team its first five-man staff for one season, 2006-07. The fifth was Tommy Dempsey, the 67's first and only goalie coach, who has held the job the past few years.

Then there's the cast of characters who Kilrea has had helping him make the whole operation go. The trainers, from Jeff Jackson to John Bryk to "Blackie" to Jeff Keech to the best of the bunch, Brian Patafie. Plus, the rest of the support staff, including scouts like Joe Rowley and Pat Higgins and team doctor Peter Premachuk.

When he was hired in 1974, it was to be the coach and GM. Kilrea said he didn't know a thing about being a GM. Darwin told him not to worry.

"Howard said, 'That's OK, I'll help you,' " Kilrea says with a laugh now.

Around the dressing room and on the road, also lending Kilrea a hand have been the likes of Bobby Mahlitz, Gord "Stump" Craig, Gord "Tank" Hetherington and Wayne "Smitty" Smith.

That's just to name a few.

The gathering place for all over the years has been the famous Hot Stove Lounge, located just down the hall from the 67's dressing room.

The stories have outlived some of the regulars.

"Dave Ranger was the best," Kilrea said, referring to a good friend of his that passed away 12 years ago. "He was the master of the one-liners. And you couldn't catch him. You couldn't stymie him. You couldn't top him."

There was the day Larry Kelly -- the Ottawa lawyer whose family owns a funeral home -- stuck his head in the room and sighed.

"Same old faces," Kelly said.

"What do you think it is, a funeral home where they change them every three or four days?" Rangers cracked.

"I knew I shouldn't have opened my mouth," Kelly said, shaking his head to roars of laughter.

John Sheppard worked in the ticket office and only did everything else requested of him.

"John Sheppard could scrounge anything, he was the best," Kilrea said. "If somebody said they needed something, he'd get it for them. He looked after the players."

Even when the late Gordie Woods took his scouting skills to the Cornwall Royals from Ottawa, he was beloved by the 67's.

"A character of characters," Kilrea calls him.

NHL GREATS VISIT

The visitors to the back room have included A Who's Who of NHL superstars: Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Bobby Hull, Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Dennis Hull, Ron Francis, Guy Lafleur, Johnny Bower, Serge Savard, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, Doug Wilson, Bobby Smith ....

"You can't believe the guys that have been in this room," Kilrea said.

"Ted Lindsay couldn't get in the room one night, so he sat out in the corridor for 10 minutes.

"Bobby Hull started telling some stories and finally he says, 'uh, Brian, how does it work in this room?' I told him, nothing can be printed in this room. This is a private room. Whatever is said in here is never repeated. He said, 'oh good'.

"And then he told some funny stories."

There are always a lot of them when you're riding with Kilrea and his entourage.

DON.BRENNAN@SUNMEDIA.CA


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