EDMONTON — Dallas Eakins has always been a very good speaker, and on this day he was expounding on how much he’d learned about each of his players last season — how that familiarity would make his second season behind the Edmonton Oilers bench that much more comfortable.
It raised the question, so we asked it: “So, you learned a lot about the players last year. What did you learn about yourself in your first year as an NHL coach?”
His answer: “Probably to talk less.”
Period. End paragraph.
A four-word quote from one of the National Hockey League’s foremost podium men. That was it.
Eakins arrived from the Toronto Marlies 12 months ago, a rookie NHL coach with the gift of gab and a refreshing willingness to let the fans in on the decision-making process. When you sat through one of his newsy press conferences, hearing the width and breadth of his unusually long answers, you tended to walk out with the whole picture, along with an appreciation for an NHL coach who shares so much more than so many of his colleagues do.
But, of course, television does not have time for a three-minute answer. So sometimes, when the editors in Toronto singled a clip out of another Eakins treatise, it suffered by the absence of the run-up.
Is it fair? No, it’s not fair.
Is it the reality of television, or to a lesser extent, column writing? Sadly, yes, it is.
“I don’t ever want to turn into a coach who is just going to (rely on clichés) like, ‘Let’s work hard today.’ And, ‘Give 100 percent.’ I think our fans deserve more than that,” Eakins said as camp opened with medicals at Rexall Place Thursday. “But I did find out about how people can shorten your quote, shorten your message, and turn it into something else. That’s one of the lessons.
“Believe me, I learned many lessons. But my one lesson is … I (learned) how it may be twisted. I learned not to speak so much.”
It must also be said, there were likely a few too many first-person references — use of the words “I” and “my” — for the liking of most team-first hockey traditionalists. Then the Oilers set about losing all but four of their first 21 games, and suddenly all of those Eakins pearls of wisdom came whizzing back at him like line drives through the box.
He’s confident, like every NHL head coach and player. The only difference is, Dallas Eakins doesn’t hide it as well as so many of his boring colleagues. He’s willing to take the slings with arrows, for now.
“We’re in a passionate market,” he said. “People care about what you do every day. When there are tough times, yeah, there is going to be some negativity. But when the good times come, that’s an excellent feeling as well.”
He is still delightfully candid, like when he took on the Oilers’ dilemma at centre ice on Thursday without even being asked: “We have two NHL centremen right now, and I have no idea who the others will be. That’ll be for the players to decide.”
Or this take, on how he was perceived by his own players last season: “It takes time to understand how everybody works. I’m sure they were looking at me sometimes last year going, ‘Is this what he’s about all the time? Is this just an act? Is this just for today or the whole year?’ This year … I know what they expect of me, and they know what I expect of them.”
As a reporter, or as you, the fan/reader, it’s a dangerous game when you start chastising a willing interview like Eakins. You throw one too many quotes back at him, and guess what happens? A guy who generously lets fans inside his thought process might just stop doing so entirely. Then you’re left with Bill Belichick, or Jacques Martin, coaches whose fan base don’t get one-tenth of the insight that Eakins affords Oilers fans.
He’s also a willing participant when a writer shows up to write about a player, or an aspect of the club, giving insightful, thoughtful and well-built quotes that help journalists build coherent and (hopefully) astute reads on the various Oilers players.
He’s not just a good quote, but Eakins is a smart, articulate guy. And that only becomes a problem if the Oilers don’t start winning more games.
Eakins’ insight and openness was sometimes taken as arrogance or ego, when his team’s results last season failed to produce the evidence that he truly knew what he was doing. With some goaltending, a couple of additions on defence, and some size up front, Eakins has a better chance of looking smart this season than last.
It can’t happen too soon for those who attend his press conferences. Last season, they were often the most intriguing part of a game day in Edmonton.