Almost a month ago, Sportsnet columnist Mark Spector hooked up with Willie Desjardins, then simply a candidate for the Vancouver Canucks head coaching job. In the days since, Desjardins has taken his Texas Stars to the American Hockey League championship, turned down an offer to be the Pittsburgh Penguins head coach, and stepped into the driver’s seat for the job in Vancouver.
Here’s another look at the man who is now expected to be named to the post in Vancouver, possibly as soon as Monday.
The welcome sign outside of Willie Desjardins’ hometown of Climax, Saskatchewan is prairie humble. On the front it reminds that this is the hometown of both Gord Kluzak and Shaun Van Allen. On the leaving-town side, well, what would you expect?
Get it? Climax… come again?
Hometown aside, the 57-year-old career coach near the top of the Vancouver Canucks' list of potential head coaches does not meet the requirement of “sexy hire.” He bought a nine-hold golf course near the Alberta border at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park and snapped up some of the family farm near Climax, but he admits, “I don’t get back there as much anymore, but I’ve always loved the farm.”
A hockey coach since 1984 but never a head coach in the National Hockey League, that could be Desjardins’ road sign: “I’ve always loved the farm.”
If you thought new Vancouver GM Jim Benning was understated to a fault, wait till you get a load of Desjardins, one of those hockey people who are unilaterally respected inside the industry but could walk through the Hockey Hall of Fame without getting asked for a single autograph.
He’s been around for 30 years, and the closest he’s come to an NHL head coaching job was serving as an associate coach in Dallas from 2010 to 2012 under Marc Crawford and then Glen Gulutzan. They didn’t last, but GM Jim Nill had enough respect for Desjardins’ skills that he offered him the Stars’ AHL job.
Some coaches’ egos would not allow them a step down within the same organization. We would have checked with Desjardins’ ego, but you would have to be able to detect one first.
“I coach because I love coaching,” he says over the phone from Austin, Texas, where his Stars have reached the American Hockey League Western Conference final against the Toronto Marlies. “It’s not like it’s even my career. It’s something I’ve been lucky to do all these years.”
Quiet, humble, under-bearing: Desjardins is the anti-Torts, and perhaps the perfect hire for Vancouver Canucks president Trevor Linden, who was long gone from his hometown of Medicine Hat, Alta., by the time Desjardins got the Tigers' head coaching gig in 2002.
John Tortorella’s reputation preceded him in Vancouver. The GM who hired him had a penchant for emanating a sense of all-knowingness where hockey was concerned.
Well, Benning arrives with a lifetime in the game under his belt, and he promised nothing more than he was going to work his tail off for the people of Vancouver. Desjardins is that same guy, with a streak of loyalty that has likely stunted his progression in the game.
“The one thing I’ve always had a problem with is, I’ve always enjoyed so much where I’m at. So I’ve never thought, I’ve got to move on, go someplace else. I’m sure that’s hurt me,” Desjardins says.
The University of Calgary, Japan, the Saskatoon Blades, Team Canada, Medicine Hat... you know you’re much travelled when even hockeydb.com can’t entirely keep track of your career.
Linden is on record that he wants a career coach, which rocketed Desjardins and Barry Trotz to the top of the list of available guys. And with Trotz joining the Washington Capitals Monday, Dejardins' chances of being hired in Vancouver have seemingly increased.
Even though Desjardins has not interviewed and admits, “I’ve never dealt with [Benning] directly in any matter,” that the Canucks are waiting while the AHL postseason plays out might be a hint.
So, what makes a Desjardins -- a guy who most readers can’t even paint a mental picture of -- a legit candidate for the Canucks job?
Well, it started out at the University of Saskatchewan, where Desjardins' playing career was wrapping up under a young head coach named Dave King.
“He’s the one who got me into coaching,” says Desjardins. He played in an era of Canada West university hockey that sported coaches named Clare Drake (Alberta), George Kingston (Calgary), King (Saskatchewan), Andy Murray (Brandon) and the late Wayne Fleming in Manitoba. “If you can ever be considered a Clare Drake disciple, it would be pretty great. He’s a great man, and a real good hockey man.”
Today, Desjardins has one player who was born before he started coaching in 1984, Texas captain Maxime Fortunus. An AHL championship would be special, and perhaps a perfect way to cap a 30-year career spent only briefly in the big leagues.
After that, doesn’t any career like Desjardins' end up as incomplete if it doesn’t include at least one NHL head coaching job?
“No, it can be complete,” he says, without a hint of doubt in his voice. “Any time you get to coach players who want to win and give everything they have, I think that’s complete. If you’re a bantam coach and your players are trying as hard as they can, I think that’s complete.
“I don’t think there has to be more.”
We shall find out shortly if the career of Willie Desjardins stays under the radar -- or if Vancouver becomes his new, well, Climax.