The Caps Connection: From PEI to the NHL

Former Vegas Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

This story was originally published on Jan. 10, 2015

Canada’s smallest province has a population slightly more than 140,000, yet two of the 30 NHL coaches hail from Prince Edward Island.

On Dec. 8, Dave Cameron was promoted to head coach of the Ottawa Senators. With the hiring, Cameron became the fourth-ever Islander to be named an NHL head coach.

The other three are Billy MacMillan, Sportsnet’s Doug MacLean and the Florida Panthers’ Gerard Gallant.

For the latter two, there is a common thread that links them and Cameron on their path to hockey’s highest professional stage. Although their journeys were all different, MacLean, Cameron and Gallant all passed through the Summerside Western Capitals organization along the way.

The Caps, as they are known by those around the city, are a tier-two junior hockey team that plays in the Maritime Junior A Hockey League.

“I don’t know, is it fluky that three of us from the Western Capitals end up coaching? I don’t know. I think it bodes well for the organization,” MacLean said.

MacLean was the first of the bunch to coach the Summerside team after it changed its name to the Western Capitals from the Crystals. From 1981-84, the Summerside native was behind the Western Capitals bench before eventually making his way to the NHL with the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets as head coach for parts of five seasons.

MacLean and Cameron played a season together with the University of Prince Edward Island men’s hockey team — MacLean a senior, Cameron a freshman — but their relationship evolved when MacLean coached the Caps.

“When I was coaching the Western Capitals, Dave’s brother Charlie was one of my top players. I sort of had a relationship with the family, even more so before I met Dave because of Charlie and the parents and recruiting Charlie to come and play for me,” MacLean said.

After UPEI, Cameron played hockey professionally for five years in the 1980s. He played with the Colorado Rockies and New Jersey Devils before he was convinced by current Senators scout Jim Clark, a former coach and general manager of Summerside, to coach the team in 1985.

“I always knew that eventually, when I was done playing, that I would coach,” Cameron said in a phone interview. “I certainly didn’t know I was going to coach professionally, and I certainly didn’t know I was going to coach in the National Hockey League. I just knew I was going to coach. It was just in me.

“Jimmy Clark gave me that opportunity and once I got in and doing it, the passion for coaching just continued to grow and grow and grow.”

Cameron would remain with the team until the end of the 1989 season, which turned out to be a memorable one in Summerside. The city hosted the Centennial Cup (now called the RBC Cup) after a successful playoff run where they won the provincial championship. After a double-overtime win in the quarter-final, followed by a triple-overtime win in the semifinal, the Western Capitals eventually lost to Thunder Bay in the championship game.

For a young Gallant growing up in Summerside, watching the Caps was a ritual.

“I remember coming home from the year we lost out in Detroit and I think it was 1989 and Dave Cameron was the head coach with the Summerside team that went to the Royal Bank Cup finals, it was the Centennial Cup back then,” the former Red Wings forward said in a phone interview.

“I was a big Caps fan and that was my NHL back then in those days.”

Gallant had the most successful tenure as a coach with the Western Capitals. In 1997, shortly after retiring from the NHL and with Summerside hosting the RBC Cup, he led the team to its first national championship.

When they were younger, Cameron, of Kildare Capes, PEI, and Gallant worked for MacLean when he ran a hockey school in Summerside. Those relationships carried on as all three pursued their journeys to the NHL after coaching the Western Capitals. Gallant got his big break when he was hired by MacLean in Columbus, where he eventually became the Blue Jackets bench boss.

For Cameron, he worked his way up from the Colonial Hockey League to the OHL, the AHL, back to the OHL and then finally to Ottawa.

“I always aspired to be in the National Hockey League, but I also knew that there was only 30 jobs available and that there was an awful lot of good coaches not in the National Hockey League and so you know I just kept plugging away and letting my coaching record or my coaching pedigree and hoping that eventually you might get a break,” said Cameron, who also added that all three keep in contact from time to time through their busy schedules.

“The way I got the job, you know was certainly mixed emotions. Certainly glad to be here. The journey was a lot of fun too.”

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