Perry Pearn was out of work, and the summer was wearing on. So when his caller ID showed the name of old colleague Willie Desjardins, Pearn just assumed he was checking in to see how the job search was coming along.
These old coaches, they stay in touch. It’s a network that began when Pearn was the head coach at a Canadian college powerhouse, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, and Desjardins was an assistant coach under the legendary George Kingston at the University of Calgary.
“We were in the same tournaments, certainly the U of A (University of Alberta) tournament,” Pearn recalls, roughly 30 years down hockey’s road. “We crossed paths a bit with the Hockey Alberta Under 16 and Under 17 development teams.”
Former Dallas head coach Glen Gulutzan was already under contract in Vancouver as an assistant coach, and Desjardins had brought former Canucks defenceman Doug Lidster along from Austin, where they’d won a Calder Cup together last season.
“To me,” said Pearn, “it didn’t look like there was room for anyone else (in Vancouver). It was late into the summer when I got the call, and I didn’t think he was calling me for a job. I thought he was just calling as a friend.
“After I started to listen to him a little more carefully, I figured out he was asking me to accept a certain role. I finally said, “Willie, do you really think that could happen?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, it can happen.’”
This is how hockey men like Pearn get hired, when a head coach looks at his staff, sees a position that needs to be filled, and thinks, “I want someone who can bring the maximum hockey knowledge into my coaches room every day.” Pearn, who was a head coach at NAIT for 14 years (six national titles, seven-time Alberta Colleges Coach of the Year), won three gold medals as an assistant with Canada’s National Junior team, and has worked as an NHL assistant for an uninterrupted 19 consecutive seasons, brings as much to the table as any assistant in the game today.
He has worked for five NHL teams, four of them Canadian-based. And you can add another team to those totals when you consider he worked for both the original Winnipeg Jets under head coach Terry Simpson, and then for the new Jets, 16 seasons later, under Claude Noel.
“The first job in Winnipeg was influenced by the fact I’d coached in the Western Hockey League (Medicine Hat). I’m sure Terry Simpson heard about me through his brother Wayne in Red Deer. The year I coached in Medicine Hat we played Red Deer 10 times and I think we won nine. If only we’d have been that good against everyone else…”
The smartest move Pearn made after a year in Winnipeg was to ask permission to join World Juniors colleague Jacques Martin in Ottawa, rather than join the migration down to Phoenix when the Jets relocated. Simpson and his staff were fired before they ever coached a game in the desert, while Pearn joined a Senators club that fell a top goalie short of reaching a Stanley Cup while Pearn was still there.
Today Pearn, single again at age 63, is a product of so many fantastic coaches that he can barely recount all his influences.
“To me, between George Kingston and Clare Drake, that’s where the next generation started,” he said. “They were the guys who pushed Dave King to be a better coach, and Wayne Fleming. And that spread to guys like myself, Willie, and other coaches who were forced to get better. Ken Hitchcock (St. Louis Blues), Mike Johnston (Pittsburgh Penguins), Mike Babcock (Detroit Red Wings) were influenced by that group as well.”
Pearn will help Desjardins with his powerplay in Vancouver, a sore spot for Canucks fans. What once was the league’s best unit has plummeted to 22nd and 26th the past two seasons. “Certainly looking to get more out of that group, and more of that part of the game,” he said.
For over 25 years Pearn has run a 3-on-3 summer camp in Edmonton that has become a staple for pros who summer in Northern Alberta, and over that time, he has become one of the longest serving NHL assistants, alongside men like Craig Ramsay, Rik Wilson, and Rick Bowness.
Today that former college coach is that reliable, veteran shoulder for Desjardins to lean on, and more importantly, trust implicitly. For a rookie NHL coach in a hot market like Vancouver, that is an invaluable asset.