DETROIT – Doug Cook, Dick Power and Mario Pouliot are names that won’t ring a bell with most Canadian hockey fans but players skating in the NHL’s championship series owe them a debt of gratitude.
There are dozens more just like them, too. They are the coaches who taught and encouraged the boys that would become the men competing for the Stanley Cup this spring.
Darren Helm, at 21 the youngest player to skate for the Detroit Red Wings in these playoffs, quickly mentions Cook when asked to name a minor-league coach from whom he benefited. Helm was eight when he was first coached by Cook in St. Andrew’s, Man.
“The encouragement he gave me – that’s what I remember most,” says the soft-spoken Helm. “He made playing hockey fun, and he always believed I could go far.”
Helm wound up playing Jr. B hockey for the Selkirk Fishermen after being cut by a Jr. A team in Manitoba. Selkirk coach Al Harris got a skinny 16-year-old who was determined to succeed and willing to work hard.
“He pushed me along and helped me gain a lot of confidence,” says Helm.
Then came two years in the WHL with the Medicine Hat Tigers and coach Willi Desjardins.
“He helped me become the player that I am,” says Helm.
The speedy forward was the 132nd player selected in 2005. Nobody expected him to be in the Red Wings’ lineup for these playoffs. His name doesn’t appear on the roster on the team’s website. But coach Mike Babcock raves about the kid who, to many NHL fans, came out of nowhere.
Doug Cook must be watching from a distance with great pride.
Dick Power coached Red Wings forward Dan Cleary from atom through bantam in Harbour Grace and now Cleary is close to becoming the first man from Newfoundland and Labrador to earn a Stanley Cup ring.
“His influence is one of the reasons why I’m here today,” says Cleary, who credits Power with helping him develop the right attitude as an athlete.
“He always had a good mind for the game – still does. It’s always good to draw back on those experiences.”
The pros don’t forget the men who helped get them to the big league.
Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang was coached by Mario Pouliot on a midget team in the Montreal region. Letang improved by leaps and bounds. Then Eric Lavigne, his junior coach, helped him build confidence.
Dallas Drake, who is from Rossland, B.C., is finishing his 16th NHL season, and he’s in the championship series for the first time. If Detroit wins, two men he’d like to thank are Rick Comley and Walt Kyle, who coached him in U.S. college hockey.
“Those two guys helped change the path of my career,” Drake says. “They taught me how to be a good two-way player.”
Pascal Dupuis has been skating alongside Sidney Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Denis Francouer, his junior coach in Shawinigan in the QMJHL, helped make it possible.
“He’s probably the one who helped me most,” says Dupuis. “I give him credit for moulding me as a hockey player.
“He helped me believe in myself, which I was not doing all the time. I had to just believe in myself and keep driving.”
Penguins teammate Max Talbot attended a high school in Boucherville, Que., that had a strong sports component.
“Alain Bourgeault coached and every day for three years I was on the ice,” Talbot recalls. “I remember being screamed at and yelled at sometimes. He was a really intense coach, and he made me better.”
Fun was always the first priority when Detroit defenceman Brad Stuart played minor hockey for coaches Henry Laraque and Frank Walton in Rocky Mountain House, Alta.
“I still keep in touch with Frank a little bit,” says Stuart. “Playing junior in Red Deer after that, I had Dan MacDonald, a really smart hockey guy, for a coach.
“They helped mould my game along the way.”
Ontario-raised Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy says “one of the really good coaches I had when I was younger was Greg Brazzo.”
“I was on a 12-year-old rep team in Sault Ste. Marie,” says Kennedy. “He really instilled the hard work ethic in men: do whatever it takes.
“He was a great coach for me, and a good guy, too.”
For today’s NHL stars, there will always be the memories of early-morning drives in parents’ cars to practices in cold arenas, and of whistle-toting coaches putting them through drills and encouraging them to be the best that they can possibly be.