VICTORIA – Tim Hunter doesn’t yodel. Although it would be fun to hear him try.
Hunter doesn’t yodel because he doesn’t have to. On junior hockey’s biggest stage, Hunter is utterly shtick-less.
He is a serious, straightforward coach who teaches, plays no mind games, angles for nothing except the betterment of his players. And Team Canada needs to be better than it was Wednesday when it opened its 2019 world junior championship rehearsals with a ragged 5-3 victory against Switzerland.
Canada’s second of three warmups is Friday against Slovakia at Save-On-Foods arena in Victoria.
Swiss coach Christian Wohlwend yodelled figuratively for a few reporters Wednesday when he compared hockey in Canada to yodelling in Switzerland.
“Canada should beat us every day, every night,” Wohlwend said. “They should beat us 10-0 with so much players.”
Wohlwend is uncommonly colourful, but his view about Canadian hockey is conventionally mainstream.
On a level ice surface, Canada should beat nearly everyone at hockey. This is what makes coaching Team Canada at a world junior championship, played in Canada, almost thankless.
Win and, well, “they should beat us 10-0 with so much players.” Lose with all that talent, and it must have been the coach. That’s the universal perception.
“Yes, it is,” Hockey Canada chief executive officer Tom Renney said. “Full stop.”
Renney knows because he “lost” a world junior championship as a coach when Russia beat Canada in overtime in the 1999 gold-medal game in Winnipeg.
“It does take a certain approach, a certain personality and attitude to do this,” Renney explained Thursday as he watched Hunter run the Canadian teenagers through a practice. “Certainly, you have to be kind of battle-tested, if you will, and understand the responsibility of playing in Canada. Whether it’s the NHL or the CHL or a Junior-A team, you have to understand playing and performing in front of a fan base that really loves and understands the game. That’s what this tournament is. On steroids.”
Hunter spent most of his 16 seasons as a National Hockey League enforcer playing for the Calgary Flames. He also spent four years near the end of his career with the Vancouver Canucks.
His 14 years as an NHL assistant coach included three difficult seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hunter has spent the last four years as a head coach with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western League.
He was on Team Canada’s staff the last two world juniors and stopped taking and making calls about NHL jobs last summer when Hockey Canada offered the 58-year-old Calgarian the head coaching position for this year’s tournament, which opens Boxing Day in Vancouver and Victoria.
“By no means do I look at it as a thankless job or am I worried about the end results,” Hunter told Sportsnet after practice. “I’m only worried about the process, and if we do this the right way, we’ll give ourselves a chance to get in the medal round and give ourselves a chance to play in the gold-medal game. Leading up to that is the work you have to do.
“Everyone talks about the pressure. But I think that’s a negative term. I think this is an opportunity. And it’s a privilege to have this opportunity to coach. I’m not worried about the end result until we get there, and when it’s over we’ll analyze what went right and what went wrong.”
It seems ironic that one of the fiercest, most-penalized fighters in NHL history is now preaching speed and skill and guiding a deeply talented Canadian team that has several forwards who could become stars in the NHL.
But Renney said the evolution that Hunter underwent from playing to coaching in the NHL and now the WHL is what makes him such a good choice for Team Canada.
“Even as a player, he always appreciated the soft skills and the artistry of playing,” Renney said. “Even though he wasn’t blessed with that himself, he understood its value. And what I really like about Tim is he’s been able to coach that way and coach those skill assets, but still kind of identify with grit and character.
“He’s intelligent and well-spoken. His messages are succinct and easy to grasp. And I think in a short-term competition, that’s vital. And I think he’s got a presence. You can’t teach charisma.”
Canadian defenceman Josh Brook, who also plays for Hunter in Moose Jaw, said of his coach: “No one’s talking when he’s talking, in Moose Jaw or in this room. But he’s not tough as a coach. He doesn’t like guys fighting. He likes skill, likes guys making plays. And he likes us following details and following a system and making sure everyone is on the same plan. He’s trying to teach.”
At 52-15-5, Hunter’s Warriors were the best team in the WHL last season but were upset in the playoffs. Moose Jaw is 17-8-5 so far this season.
Hunter hasn’t given up landing the NHL head-coaching position that has eluded him despite numerous job interviews the last 10 years.
“I kept getting the same response: I didn’t have any head coaching experience,” he said. “I’ve got over 2,000 games in the NHL, playing and coaching. So I’ve got a little bit of experience. But I decided to come to the Western Hockey League to get some head coaching experience and run my own program, build my own culture and style of play and then go back at some point and try again.
“I’m glad I did it. I’ve got no regrets and am really looking forward to this. It’s all been great. If it doesn’t happen (in the NHL), it’s not that big a deal. I just love being a coach and being around hockey players. Whether I’m getting better as a coach in junior or the American League or in the NHL, it’s all I love to do.”