Most people close to Dallas Eakins don’t see his firing as Edmonton Oilers head coach 15 months ago the way he does.
He sees it as a gift.
“A lot of people come at me with ‘Boy, that must’ve been hard, that must’ve been terrible,'” Eakins said in an interview from California. “Now that I’ve been out of it for quite a long time I look back and I’m like ‘Jeez that was a real gift for me.’
“And it was something now that you learn so many things from. You learn who’s with you, who’s against you, you grow as a coach immensely. It was good for family to go through it, to face some real hard adversity because up ’til then it had all been rainbows and butterflies.”
“I know there’s a lot of criticism of my time there and I’m fine with that,” he added. “And usually the opinions being expressed, they are so far off it’s amazing. I know what went on in the locker-room and no one else does.”
Now of the head coach of the emerging San Diego Gulls of the AHL, Eakins is refreshed and in love with coaching once again.
“I’m not sure this could’ve gone any better if I could’ve written it down in a script,” he said.
Not that it didn’t take time to get over his dismissal from the Oilers, who fired him after a 7-19-4 start to his second season.
Being fired was something new for Eakins.
He’d seen the late Roger Neilson, someone he describes as a second father, go through it, but this was different. Suddenly, he was the one stung.
“You feel for these coaches that get let go. You feel for your neighbours in Edmonton working in the oil business and they’ve been laid off, you feel for people like that,” Eakins said. “But now this was me and I’ll admit that it is not fun. It’s not fun to go through. And it’s especially not fun for your family to go through.”
To deal with it Eakins became a fan of the Grouse Grind, a nearly three-kilometre hike up Grouse Mountain in north Vancouver. He also reconnected with coaches and players from his tenures with the Oilers and the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
He wanted to get the pluses and minuses of his performance, curious to know what worked and what didn’t.
“Looking back at major issues there’s not many things that I think we would change,” Eakins said. “The feedback on what we did well, the things that we could’ve changed that was really constructive for me. It gave me more to think about.”
He remains in touch with players from his days with the Oilers, Marlies and Maple Leafs, where he served as an assistant coach for two seasons.
Edmonton, with a flawed roster, remains no better since his dismissal, currently last in the Western Conference under Todd McLellan.
Neilson’s handling of various firings also helped Eakins gain perspective. Eakins said Neilson, an innovative legend who coached eight NHL teams, mourned dismissals for about a month then moved on to the next thing.
Eakins’ own experience as a journeyman NHL player was beneficial, too. Each time he was let go his focus was on the next team, not the one that didn’t want him any longer.
It was about two months after the firing that Eakins realized that not only was he OK with what transpired, but thankful for the “gift” it provided.
“Once you’ve come out of it you’ve got that whole feeling of ‘I got through that,'” Eakins said. “A lot of people close to me don’t see it way. But I do. I’m like that was a great gift to go through that kind of adversity.”
Eakins and his family are loving life in sunny San Diego, which has quickly become mad for hockey. The Gulls moved from Norfolk for the start of the season and already are second in AHL attendance, drawing in more than 8,500 fans per game.
Boasting a 10-2-1-1 mark over their last 14 games, the Gulls are surging with a patchwork roster under Eakins and are on track to make the playoffs after missing out in two of the three seasons prior.
Once a hot commodity in the coaching game, Eakins hopes to get a second crack at the NHL.
“If a team comes knocking, if they come knocking tomorrow or if it’s five years from now, I’m fine with that,” Eakins said. “I know if I go in and give my best every day, give my best to these players, that eventually and hopefully you’ll get another shot. But it’s literally the last thing on my mind.”