WHISTLER, B.C. – Willie Desjardins went to great lengths—and travelled great distances—to learn more about his Vancouver Canucks.
After the 57-year-old was hired as the franchise’s 18th head coach in June, he hit the road to meet with members of a veteran core that will need to rebound in a big way following a miserable 2013-’14 campaign that ended with the Canucks missing the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
“It’s important to me because the players are such a main part of what’s going to happen, and you have to find out where they’re at and where they’re coming from,” said Desjardins, who is getting his first chance to lead an NHL club. “I really wanted their feedback—where they saw the team, what they believed could happen. It’s just a good opportunity. You get to see them in a business (setting), and then you get to see them in their setting a little bit.
“It just helps me to get to know the players a little bit and see their passion.”
Desjardins set out across Canada to meet with defencemen Dan Hamhuis (Smithers, B.C.) and Kevin Bieksa (Toronto), as well as forward Alexandre Burrows (Montreal) on their turf before travelling to Sweden to link up with Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Desjardins said what struck him most was how badly that group wants to return to the level they were at in the 2011 Stanley Cup final, which the Canucks lost in seven games.
“It’s not about them. There wasn’t one time that I talked to those leaders that they said ‘Well I need this,’ ” said Desjardins. “It was always about the team—’This is what we want to do.’
“They basically said ‘The game’s been really good to us and that we just want to be successful here.’ That’s their most important thing.”
The Climax, Sask., native led the Texas Stars to the AHL’s Calder Cup title last season and is the Canucks’ third head coach in three years. As he conducts his first training camp in Whistler, B.C., Desjardins can probably be best described as falling somewhere in middle of the coaching spectrum between the laissez-fair Alain Vigneault and fiery John Tortorella.
“I’m the coach. That’s what it is,” said Desjardins. “I won’t get into (the players’) personal stuff, very little. That’s theirs.”
Hamhuis said he appreciated that new coach took time to visit his family in the off-season, with Desjardins even getting a tour of the property from the defenceman’s young children.
“We also had a chance to sit down and look through some things—his philosophies on coaching and what he sees for our team this year,” said Hamhuis. “I think that goes a long way when you have that care in the dressing room.
“A lot of times people like to say that we’re a family, but I think when a coach, as a leader of our team, really demonstrates that it really goes a long way.”
Daniel Sedin agreed the meetings really struck a chord, adding it’s the first time he and his brother had been visited by a coach in the summer.
“That shows how much he cares. He wants us to do well. He wants the team to do well,” said Sedin. “He just wanted to meet the guys and get a view of how we are and what we think. It was talking things out and getting to know each other.”
Derek Dorsett—acquired by Vancouver from the New York Rangers in June—played for Desjardins when he was coaching the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers and said the visits shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
“He doesn’t just think of you as a hockey player, he gets to know you as a person,” said the gritty forward. “He wants to know about your family.
“He respects you, and when things aren’t going your way he’ll talk to you about it in a nice manner. He’s honest with you, he gives you respect, and that’s one of the most important things you can ask from a coach.”
Canucks forward Chris Higgins was around Vancouver most of the summer and got a chance to chat with Desjardins often. He said he expects the new regime to communicate better and have a more positive attitude, which was not the case last season under Tortorella.
“I think a different, fresh approach is going to be taken. I think a (coaching staff) that’s probably a little more receptive to what we have to say and that’s all a player can ask for—to be able to share your opinions and have it be translated onto the ice as well,” said Higgins. “I think that was a pretty classy step by him to reach out and even go visit some guys. I think a lot of guys had positive reviews of their conversations with him.
“I think he’s a guy that listens to the players’ opinions and doesn’t have any pre-conceived notions of what kind of player or person we have on the team.”
Desjardins said it would be foolish not to listen to the players as Vancouver looks to climb back up the standings after finishing 12th in the Western Conference last season, eight points out of the final playoff spot.
“We won’t just have the door open. We’ll talk to the players. We want to hear what they have to say,” said Desjardins, who spent two years as an assistant with the Dallas Stars, including one under current Canucks assistant Glen Gulutzan. “They know the game. They’ve seen it, they know what we need to do on the ice. We’d be making a mistake if we didn’t talk to them about it and get their input.”
Tortorella’s attempt to get the Canucks playing a more defensive-minded, puck-pressure style failed miserably in his only season at the helm. While Desjardins said he wants an up-tempo game that sets the tone night in and night out, he added there might be some growing pains in camp and into the pre-season.
“The challenge is always just to get up and go where everybody knows the systems. If you’re unsure you can’t go hard because you’re going to have to think before you go,” he said. “We want to make sure guys know where they’re going, and that takes a little bit of time. It’s a bit of a process.
“Use the analogy of getting a bus moving—once you get it moving it’s going to be easier. It’s the first part that’s the toughest challenge. That will take a little bit, but once we get it going it will be a lot smoother.”