Q&A: Dallas Eakins on lessons learned with Oilers, coaching in AHL

Edmonton Oilers new general manager Ken Holland joined Prime Time Sports to discuss leaving Detroit and his plans for the team.

SAN DIEGO – “I (screwed) it up.”

Ask Dallas Eakins about what went wrong in Edmonton, and he looks you right in the eye and comes clean. In stronger language than we used above.

He’s always been a fascinating study, one of the most cerebral hockey men we’ve ever met, in some ways a guy who has sometimes been ahead of his time. Like with fitness.

Then, at other times, not so much. Like the defensive system he called “The Swarm.”

“Is that he one,” goalie Devan Dubnyk once mused, “where everyone went into the corner and left a guy all alone in front of me?”

Eakins would laugh at that, we hope, because that’s who he is. Brave enough to stick his neck out, and smart enough — as you will read — to take a long look in the mirror after it gets chopped off.

Eakins is 52 now, and completing his fourth season as head coach of Anaheim’s top farm club, the San Diego Gulls. He is the heir apparent to the head-coaching job in Anaheim, but currently immersed in an American Hockey League playoff series with Bakersfield.

Read closely when Eakins talks about how he inexplicably chose to rush everything in Edmonton. How he had taken a long time to change the culture with the Toronto Marlies, yet tried to “bang it out in a couple of months” with Edmonton.

It’s a lesson on why bad cultures stay bad, and why some losing teams don’t improve. The more troubled the culture, the longer it takes to repair. Yet, teams that have lost for a long time are in a hurry to win, so they try to change everything fast. It doesn’t work that way, and teams like Edmonton find themselves in that ‘rinse and repeat’ mode, firing coaches and GMs all the time.

Eakins is a living example of how it simply does not happen on a faster timeline, just because an owner, a GM, or a fan base demands an improvement.

He’s back in the minors, waiting for his second chance as an NHL coach. He took time to sit down with Sportsnet.ca on Friday morning.

You’ve been here in San Diego running a playoff team, while Ducks GM Bob Murray has been behind the Ducks bench. How difficult was it to keep your focus here, when that job is dangling up there?

“Actually quite easy. I’m not going to lie, when you see that they’ve made the change, the immediate emotion is: I’ve known Randy since I was 22 years old (as a Winnipeg Jets defenceman). He was an unbelievable mentor, and I worked with him in Toronto. He is a dear friend of mine. I firmly understood the pain he’s going through, so to see the change, it hurts your heart. When you’ve been through it, it hurts even deeper for your friend.

“The second thought was, ‘Oh, s–t. Do I have to go up there?’ Then they announced Bob (GM Murray) was going behind the bench. And it became, ‘OK, I just have to concentrate on my own things here.’”

How many interviews have you done for NHL jobs since you left Edmonton in 2015?

“Official interviews? I’ve had one … in Arizona. Other than that, I’ve had some conversations, kind of on the side, about ‘What you think about this, or that.’ But nothing really worth talking about.”

Prioritize the lessons learned in Edmonton. What was the biggest one?

“Well, I f—ed it up, number one.

“My biggest lesson is, when I went in as head coach with the Toronto Marlies, the one thing that I wanted for sure was that you need to have an excellent environment. You need to have that first, before you can even think about winning on the ice. You have to have something that feels right when not only the staff, but the players come to the rink. When I went into Toronto, I didn’t build a culture in two days, or two months. There, it took two full years. You had to slowly get everybody on board.

“Believe me, I did my homework when I went into Edmonton. I talked to people who had been there before, who were there currently. I talked to players… And there were a lot of, let’s call them red flags. But instead of going with what I knew, a slower approach that I think I’m half decent at, I went the other way.

“I went in there with a f—ing blow torch, and a can of gasoline, and I tried to hit everything head on. And I tried to hit it all in two weeks. ‘We’re going to get this changed, right away!’ Obviously it backfired. The first season was a disaster. Then, after a lot of self-evaluation, I’d learned my lesson. We started to build it. The team was playing better. The (scoring) chances now weren’t 20-8, but suddenly the chances were 14-13.

“When I got fired, I think I was way better coach than when I showed up. Funny – I screwed that up, right from Day 1. Instead of trying to reason, teach some lessons, take a couple of years to cultivate it, I tried to bang it out in one or two months. In the end it was burnt down, and I was the last guy standing.”

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In terms of the pointedness of that experience, does coaching — and failing — in a Canadian city provide the greatest education a coach could ever get?

“Absolutely. I always believe this, and it’s not just in hockey, but with family and in life: Adversity, in the moment, is bad. It’s not fun. Adversity six months later? A year later? Four years later? Ooooh, is it good. A lot of that adversity in Edmonton, I own it. I own it.

“I get this question all the time: ‘How was it in Edmonton, really?’ You know, I wish it on no one. But, I wish it on everyone. I would never wish it on one of my daughters, or one of my coaches. But adversity… You need it to get better.”

Your daughters are 10 (Emerson) and seven (Cameron). What’s it like raising a family, when you’re a traveling hockey coach?

“Well, without putting myself in tears, you miss a lot of stuff. Whether it’s boys or girls, that’s awfully tough. But having two girls, it makes you soft – and in a good way. My daughters and my wife, I think they give me a bigger heart, and a softness to it.

“But it’s true. They are from everywhere. My oldest one, I’ve never used the word fired to her once … but last year we tied for the last playoff spot, and missed out on a tie-breaker. (Emerson) says, ‘Are you going to get fired?’ I said, ‘I hope not. I don’t think so.’

“She has lived in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, and here in Poway. If you asked her right now where she’d most like to live, she’d want to go back to Edmonton. She loves that snow.

“It’s funny, as negative as we think that was for those fans, for everyone, she’d go back there in a minute.”

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

You and your wife (Ingrid) are raising your family in a town near here called Poway. Last month a shooter opened fire in a Poway synagogue. How jarring is that?

“The first eight years of my life I lived in very rural, poor Florida. There were guns all around me, and I remember that. But then we moved to Peterborough (Ont.). All of these shootings, no matter where they are, they put you on edge. Then, when you have kids in school, they put you even more on edge.

“These shootings always seem so far away. The synagogue in Pittsburgh. You think about it, you mourn it, you have a heavy heart. But it’s far away. Well, that day, I was at my daughter’s championship game for her softball. All of the sudden there was a buzz around, and it was, ‘OK, there’s been a shooting.’ Then, you could see everybody changing. ‘Oh my God, it’s here.’

“They caught the guy about a mile from the softball game. That synagogue, I run past it all the time. My kids’ school is less than a mile from there.

“When it suddenly happens in your little town of 40,000, you start to think. It’s a 19-year-old kid who went into a synagogue. It makes you think, how much did these Jewish people really oppress you?”

OK, let’s go back to Edmonton. Was it too much to ask a young coach to take on that culture?

“I don’t think so. It’s your job to do it. But, take this (Anaheim Ducks) organization. I know what the culture of the Samuellis (owners Henry and Susan) is. I know what the culture of (GM) Bob Murray is. I know what the culture of (Ducks CEO) Michael Schulman is. Some of the things that you’d try to hammer down on in Edmonton, it was, ‘Hey, we don’t do that here.’ And I’d be like, ‘You don’t want to change this?’

“You’ve got to snicker when some team changes the coach, changes the GM, changes whomever, and they say, ‘We’re going to change the culture.’ Well, I hope he has seven years on his contract, because it’s going to take two years to get it right.

“I won’t say it was too much, but the great organizations – I’ve been in with the San Antonio Spurs, I’ve been in with the Seattle Seahawks – that culture doesn’t start with the coach. It runs right through the organization.”

What about now? Does it become where, if something doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger? You must be really strong…

“As much as I live and die with the days, and practice is really important to me, and you live and die with the games, when you go through something like that it takes some of the edge off. It’s no longer, ‘Man, I just got knifed in the heart.’ It’s, ‘Aw, it’s only four stitches.’

“Strength comes with the ability to put the adverse thoughts in the right cupboard in your head, rather than making you crazy. It’s experience, right? Good, bad, indifferent, it’s all experience. And it’s all good.”

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