VANCOUVER – Few coaches would turn down the chance to coach superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—but Willie Desjardins did.
Instead of choosing to take the available coaching job with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Desjardins decided that he would rather guide Daniel and Henrik Sedin and their Vancouver Canuck teammates.
“I think Pittsburgh has great players as well, but I like the package here,” said Desjardins at a news conference Monday after his appointment as the 18th coach in Vancouver’s history was announced.
Desjardins said “a couple of things didn’t work out” in his negotiations with the Penguins.
“Sidney Crosby’s a heck of a player, obviously, but for me, I looked at the two guys that were leading this (Canucks president of hockey operations Trevor Linden and general manager Jim Benning), I looked at the quality of their players, Canadian market, Vancouver fans—it was a great choice,” said Desjardins.
It’s the first NHL head coaching job for Desjardins, a 57-year-old native of the tiny village of Climax, Sask., who most recently led the AHL’s Texas Stars to a Calder Cup championship.
“It wasn’t something where you always to have try to get to the NHL,” he said. “But once you’re past 40, you’re probably wondering if your chance is going to come, so it’s a great opportunity.”
He spent the past two seasons with Texas, winning the AHL’s coach of the year award in 2012-13. Prior to his tenure in the AHL, Desjardins spent two seasons as an associate coach with the Dallas Stars from 2010 to 2012. He also served as head coach (2002-2010) and general manager (2005-2010) of the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers, where he led the team to two Memorial Cup tournaments, including the 2007 final.
Desjardins’ resume also includes stints on Canada’s staff at two world junior tournaments and one world championship, as well as time coaching with the University of Calgary and in Japan.
He recalled telling his wife Rhonda, whom he married in 1991, that he was going to be an NHL head coach one day.
“I was trying to talk her into marrying me, and I said, ‘Rhonda, I’m going to be an NHL coach.’ I just didn’t tell her it was going to take 25 years,” he said.
Now, Desjardins is tasked with forging a strong relationship with a veteran-laden Canucks squad that missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2008 under fired John Tortorella.
Desjardins, who opted to go to the AHL’s Stars from Dallas because he preferred to be a head coach instead of an assistant, went out of his way to praise his new players.
“I’m just so excited,” he said. “We have so many great leaders on this team. To get to be part of that group, I’m looking forward to it. I can’t say enough. They’ve won in the past. They’ll win again.”
Desjardins’ hiring came with relatively little fanfare, compared to last summer when Tortorella darted away from reporters upon arrival at the Vancouver airport.
The reserved Desjardins is the opposite of the outspoken Tortorella, whose relationship with players was questioned after he became the focal point of the Canucks, especially as they struggled after a January incident in which he attempted to storm the Calgary Flames dressing room and received a six-game suspension.
“I don’t really like being in the spotlight.…I like coaching and I like winning,” said Desjardins. “And that (media exposure) comes with (winning) sometimes, so I’ll take it because it comes with (winning.)”
Desjardins’ hiring comes in advance of Friday’s NHL draft, where the Canucks will have the sixth overall pick, pending any trades. The future of centre Ryan Kesler, who has been the subject of considerable trade speculation in recent months, could also be decided at the draft.
The new coach completes a new direction in Vancouver following Linden and Benning’s appointments. The trio replace Tortorella and former Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis, who were casualties of Vancouver’s disappointing 2013-14 season.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with how everything has unfolded,” said Linden. “Willie ticks all the boxes we were looking for. He’s hard-working, he’s down to earth, he’s a very honest and genuine person. He’s won everywhere he’s been as a head coach…”
Benning said Desjardins coaching style has been a key to his success, and he sees that continuing at the NHL level.
“I’ve watched Willie’s teams play a lot in the last 12 years, including recently in Texas,” said Benning. “His teams play fast and work extremely hard. They play an up-tempo, hard-skating type of game. His teams play with that relentless attitude that we want our players to play with. He shares the same values, passion and vision that make him a good fit for us, our players, and our fans.”
Linden, who downplayed Desjardins’ lack of NHL head-coaching experience, said the coach’s hiring adds to a “good couple of months” that will be “complete” with the draft. Benning indicated that the Canucks are prepared to trade Kesler, if necessary.
“We’ve talked to him and his agent, and we’re trying to make things work for him and our organization,” Benning said.
Offering a slightly different take, Linden said the team has no timetable on a Kesler trade, and the centre has the assets that the Canucks need.
In the meantime, Desjardins, who also excelled as a high-scoring centre at the University of Saskatchewan, will prepare to ice a Canucks lineup that plays a possession-oriented game.
He expressed confidence that “a fresh start” can help turn around the fortunes of the Sedins and other players, although many observers question how far Vancouver’s talent level has fallen in relation to other Western Conference clubs.
“We want to show people that we’re for real and we want to win,” said Desjardins.
Notes: Desjardins holds a masters in social work from the University of Calgary and had a teaching career before getting into coaching.…He praised former Saskatchewan, NHL and Canadian national team coach Dave King and former University of Calgary and first-ever San Jose Sharks coach George Kingston for getting him started behind the bench.…During Desjardins’ five seasons at the University of Saskatchewan, the Huskies won three Canada West conference titles and captured one Canadian title, in 1983 in Moncton, where he was named the national tournament’s most valuable player. … Despite his surname, Desjardins does not speak French. “Sorry,” he said.