February 26, 2011
AJHL's Phelps decides its time to retireCalgary Canucks GM/coach started with team in 1977
By ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency
It was midway through Don Phelps’ almost-three-decade tenure as coach of the Calgary Canucks before he missed his first AJHL game.
A puck to the jaw, courtesy of Canucks defenceman Jason Abramoff in 1994, forced him to painfully forego his duties the following game.
And so, as time ticked away on one of the most prolific coaching careers in Canadian junior hockey history last Sunday, it was understandably hard for Phelps to be away from his team once again.
This time, as his Canucks wrapped up a trying season with a game in Okotoks, Phelps staffed the Heritage Classic, where his duties as McMahon Stadium’s assistant GM kept him from overseeing his team’s final game of the year.
“They won the game, which might tell us something,” laughed Phelps, kidding as his last-placed club was actually unable to improve on an 18-37-5 record.
“I kind of prided myself on not missing games because you’re trying to get kids to commit. But I couldn’t take it off — I have an obligation at McMahon. I phoned Tony (Sharples, the Canucks’ manager) a couple times to see how the game was going. I looked at my watch several times and wondered what I’d be doing. I felt awkward. I gave up a lot of things over the years to be there.”
A fixture on the Calgary sporting scene since he took over the Canucks in 1977, Phelps informed the team’s board last fall it was time to hand the reins to Ryan Barrett.
“He played for me in
’93 and ’94 and I cut him in ’94/95, the year we won the national championship, so he’s still thankful for that,” deadpanned Phelps of the former Royals coach.
“It’s a young man’s game. He’s got lots of energy, like
I did when I was his age. I’ve got family and grandkids and personal interests. The bus trips get longer at my age. If you’re not enthused, the players read that. Maybe some people think I’m stepping away too late given our record, but I was OK with saying my goodbyes on the 17th (the second-last game of the season) as I did.”
Essentially the last in an era of volunteers in a league that employs the rest of its coaches and GMs, Phelps and the Canucks have found it increasingly hard to recruit and compete with programs run as full-time businesses with infinitely higher budgets.
“The big thing is I recognize it’s a full-time job,” said Phelps, 64, a former AJHL player who started coaching in Drumheller in 1974 and has since taken a few years off to coach his son.
“When I started here in 1977, it was a hobby. But I can’t spend 10 hours at the stadium and then come here.”
So, he won’t.
Hoping to spend more time with family and training for marathons, Phelps also plans on mentoring young coaches.
Phelps can be proud of helping players like Dany Heatley, Craig Adams and Ken Sutton along the way to the NHL, but he deserves much more kudos for helping hundreds of kids land scholarships or simply extend their hockey days without having to leave town.
“I felt I had the responsibility to teach kids values and accountability, and one thing I can say is I never sacrificed my values in terms of how kids behaved,” said Phelps, who stresses discipline above all else. “Sometimes, you can try as hard as you want and still not win so don’t act like a jackass.”
The winningest coach in AJHL history, the self-deprecating Phelps is quick to point out he’s “also the losingest.”
While Phelps and the Canucks have suffered through some leans years of late, the pinnacle of his coaching career undoubtedly came in 1995 when he guided a rag-tag crew of locals to an overtime win at the Centennial Cup.
“That’s where Abramoff made up for hitting me in the jaw by scoring the game-winner,” laughed Phelps of an unlikely run that gripped the city, drawing scalpers to Max Bell Arena during the NHL lockout.
Almost as rewarding were the surprise tributes every team paid to him before each of his last half-dozen games on the road.
“I was pretty touched, I’ve got to be honest,” said Phelps, whose fiery nature has earned him plenty of detractors along the way. “Those things are priceless, because it’s pretty easy to make enemies in the hockey fraternity.”
“Life without hockey — I’ve never experienced it,” said Phelps, who has spent plenty of time reflecting of late.
“I met so many nice people that I have as friends now. I’ve enjoyed everything the game has given to me.
“But it’s time.”