Dallas Eakins on the difference between assistant and head coaches

Dallas Eakins credits Roger Neilsen as being his most important coaching mentor. (Jason Franson/CP)

• Roger Neilson’s impact on his career
• The difference between being and assistant and a head coach
• The importance of family

Coaches are involved in every facet of the game, from drawing up a last-second play to making sure the healthy scratch works harder instead of losing hope. They don’t often have time to talk at length, but when they do, you’d better listen. And learn.

In partnership with ProSmart, Sportsnet will publish a number of coaching-related pieces over the next couple of months. In this installment, Dallas Eakins discusses how he got into coaching and much more.

Dallas Eakins attended Roger Neilson’s hockey camp as a young player and later served as an instructor while playing for the OHL’s Peterborough Petes. Neilson made a tremendous impact on Eakins, who moved into coaching after playing 120 NHL games and nearly 1,000 more in the AHL and the now-defunct International Hockey League.

Toward the end of his playing career, Eakins gravitated toward helping the rookies find their way and fellow defencemen keep fit. A love of teaching took hold and a coaching career was born—thanks to one fortuitous phone call that may or may not have involved an absentee secretary.

“The desire to coach really goes all the way back to early in my career, being a counsellor at Roger Neilson’s hockey school. Whether or not you realize it at the time, you’re affecting young people’s lives, whether it’s on or off the ice. That probably planted the seed. I think I was much more aware of it late in my career, and it wasn’t that I was looking to coach, I just found myself drawn to things like grabbing all the defencemen and doing a stair workout, or I wanted the rookie to sit next to me in the room and I wanted him to room with me on the road. You end up almost being a secondary coach, and now that I’m a coach, those guys are extremely important in the dressing room. 

One of the greatest satisfactions comes from seeing a guy succeed. Sometimes it’s a small reward, where a guy goes from being a third-liner at the AHL level to playing on your power play, or a player gets called up from the AHL and you don’t see him again. And if you’re coaching players well, it turns into wins for your team and you get to experience something as a group. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a couple of championship teams in the AHL and there’s this bond between players who win championships that you never forget. 

There’s a lot of different ways to help guys realize their potential. Sometimes guys are gung-ho and they’re doing everything they can, and they just need to take a little bit of a different approach. Then there are the guys who have all the potential in the world and, for some reason, they don’t want to do it. Sometimes you have to find ways to make players do things they don’t want to do. 

“I firmly know I’m a way better head coach than I was ever going to be an assistant coach.”

The story of how I got into coaching is actually quite funny. I had retired going into the [2004–05] lockout. My wife [actress Ingrid Kavelaars] and I were living in Los Angeles; we came back to Toronto to be closer to my wife’s family for a couple of months. While we were here, I picked up the newspaper one morning and saw that not only were the Toronto Maple Leafs moving their farm team from St. John’s to Toronto, but they had also let go of their whole staff.

While we were here, my wife was talking about how much she missed Ontario, but in order to continue her career as an actress—which is important to us—she has to be in L.A., New York, Vancouver or Toronto. After reading the story, I tracked down the phone number for the Leafs GM at the Air Canada Centre and I called it. You call the Air Canada Centre for the GM and 999 times out of 1,000, you’re going to get the secretary. I called the number and John Ferguson picked up the phone.

I had played against John, so we chatted. He told me, “I don’t have a head coach yet, but I will definitely put you on the list. Get a resumé together, let’s meet next week.” He hired Paul Maurice. I didn’t know Paul at all, I met him at the Westin Hotel. We probably chatted for a couple of hours, and I ended up getting one of the jobs as an assistant coach, and we stayed in Toronto. 

One thing I learned quickly as an assistant coach is that you better not have your feelings hurt easily, because your job is to constantly throw things at the wall that you think will work and see if they’ll stick or not. The guy who decides if it sticks is the head coach.


I still laugh thinking about the time we were struggling in Toronto and I brought Paul Maurice some line combinations I was passionate about. Not included in those combinations were two players who were significant players in Toronto, but who were struggling badly and did not deserve to be in the lineup. I put the combinations on the board and explained it to Paul. He looked at me with that grin of his and sarcastically said, “Those guys are easy for you to sit out when you’re not the head coach.”

I’ll never forget it. We both had a laugh about it because, in the end, it wasn’t me who was going to have to answer for it, it’s going to be the head guy. As a head coach, every day you make a decision that will affect somebody on the team or somebody on your staff. But that’s the way it is, it’s part of the responsibility I like, I firmly know I’m a way better head coach than I was ever going to be an assistant coach. If you’re not willing to lay it on the line and make the call, you should be an assistant coach because you can hide in the shadows a little bit. I like having the call.

My assistant coaches are my greatest resources, and I think head coaches are nothing without their assistants. We try to do everything as a group, but in the end I have to say yes or no. I have great confidence in my abilities, but I also know I f— up sometimes, too, and you’ve got to be OK with that. You have to get to a point where you realize everyone makes mistakes, you’re going to make them and you’ve got to keep calm and carry on. 

The greatest thing that ever happened to me was playing on so many teams. I had an experience some would think was hard, but I never thought it was. I’ve had the benefit of watching Roger Neilson, Mike Keenan, Pat Quinn, Don Hay and Colin Campbell coach. Those are just the head guys, then you’ve got all the assistants. It’s mind-boggling how many coaches have touched my life.

“Having an understanding family in your life as a coach is massive, because if you don’t, you’re divorced and your wife and two little girls are living somewhere else.”

If I had to pick one who influenced me most it’s Roger Neilson, for sure. He was a second father to me and it’s not that we saw eye-to-eye style-wise, or that I want my teams to play how Rog wanted his teams to play—I laugh thinking about the long arguments he and I would have on the beach in Maui when we’d go there in the summer [on vacation]. But Roger showed me the level of commitment a coach has to have, the amount of work that goes into it.

Most important is treating everybody in your organization, the assistants, the medical staff, the equipment guys and especially the players, with great respect. I’m not sitting there giving them hugs all day, and there are some firm kicks in the ass that go on, but the biggest thing Roger had was the respect of his bosses, his players and his support staff. That’s something I’m very aware of and try to have with my team. 

Having an understanding family in your life as a coach is massive, because if you don’t, you’re divorced and your wife and two little girls are living somewhere else. The one thing with Ingrid and me is that there’s no bigger supporter of my career than her, and there’s no bigger supporter of her career than me. This is something that’s been going on for a long time, where she’s always trying to think of me first and I’m always trying to think of her first.

We just support each other so that the house stays happy, because I cannot imagine doing the job I do now and coming home to a sad house. It would rip me apart, and it would really affect my job, as well.”