The tiny Alberta village that birthed two NHL coaches


Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

WARBURG, Alberta — The coffee is on inside Phyllis and Gordon Schnick’s kitchen, and the pickles, cheese and garlic sausage are coming off the cutting board any minute now.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, the TV is off, and a conversation that starts with a question about Philadelphia Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol winds its way to his father Ed’s nearby farm, a 1,000-head, 1200-acre operation now run by Dave’s brother, Brian.

“Everyone thought Dave had the work ethic,” jokes Gary Bredin, a local who played four World Hockey Association seasons split between six cities back in the ’70s. “Maybe he was just tryin’ to get away from the farm? Maybe hockey was a lot easier than stayin’ at home!”

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Everyone has a good laugh, including Hakstol himself, speaking over the phone from Vancouver later in the day.

“Whenever I think I’m getting overloaded, I think of [Brian] and I know I can handle things,” Hakstol laughs. “That’s a familiar afternoon over at Gordie’s place. Great people. If you want the history of Warburg, they would proudly be able to walk you through it.”

This season it has become a trivia question: Name the village that currently supplies the National Hockey League with two of its 30 head coaches. The answer: Warburg, Alberta, home to Hakstol and Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff.

What are the odds?

“Probably a million or two to one,” says Leeson Ruff, Lindy’s Dad, who used to stop by the Hakstol farm to pick up Dave and his siblings on his school bus.

“Especially from separate families, eh? The Sutters, they had two or three coaches. But that’s the same family.”

But Viking is a town. Warburg is only a village, home to about 800 people, by Phyllis’s estimate, a guess we would take ahead of any government census.

This is cows-in-the-field, pie-on-the-window-sill country, about an 80-minute drive southwest of Edmonton. The Domo gas station sits right on 50th Avenue, then take a right down 52nd Street to Warburg Feed and Farm Supplies and the ice cream shop. The Warburg Hotel has five or six pickups in front on an afternoon when the Edmonton Eskimos are playing on TV.

Lindy’s grandpa, Sam, helped fire up a baseball team here in the 1930s. Today, if you hit a ball far enough on the ball diamond, you might have to hop the fence of the local cemetery to retrieve it.

“What’s the chance of a kid from Warburg ending up [at the University of] North Dakota, and another ending up in Buffalo, New York? Then they both end up coaching? Those odds are, well, it’s a pretty big number,” Lindy reckons.

“Some of it is luck. Some of it is the hard work both of us put in to get here. To have two people from that small of a town to end up there, it’s an incredible coincidence, I guess.”

Lindy’s the one we all know, having been drafted in the second round by Buffalo in 1979 and gone on to play nearly 700 NHL games. He was the Sabres head coach for 15 years and now is in Year 3 behind the Stars bench in Dallas, with some Canadian Olympic team work thrown in along the way.

Hakstol is still shaking some hands around the NHL as he makes his maiden Western swing this week with the Flyers, who, to the surprise of many, hired him out of the University of North Dakota over the summer. He’d left Warburg as a teenager to play at UND like so many Northern Alberta kids, then ended up coaching the Fighting Sioux for 15 seasons.

He literally stumbled into coaching, an aging defenceman nursing an injured knee after five years in the minors, when a job came open at Sioux City of the USHL.

“A few days later I was coach and GM, and the first thing I learned was how little I knew about the game,” Hakstol says.

“Game 1, we had 15 players and got beat 16-4. We won a total of nine games that year, and by the end of that year I knew that I wanted to [coach]. I had opportunities to go back and play, but it was easy for me to say, ‘No, thanks. I’m doing what I want to do.’”

There’s a work ethic here in Warburg that comes from a time before young players had wheels on their hockey bags and comfy indoor rinks. When a steady stream of young men came to the NHL off of Canadian farms, and hockey was a privilege to be enjoyed only after the chores were done and the tools put away.

“Nowadays in Warburg, it’s hard to even get a full team together at certain ages,” Ruff marvels, as our villages age and young families move to the cities. “When I was young you played in Calmar, Thorsby, Warburg, Winfield, Breton, Alder Flats… You played in Lindale — I’m not even sure there’s a town there anymore. But they had a team back then.

“Some of these towns are hard to find on a map now, but we’d go there and play ’em in hockey, on an outdoor rink.”

Pros and juniors alike used to came home to Warburg to take summertime jobs in the oil field, on a farm, or for Phil Schmidt’s father’s stucco operation, where Ruff mixed the cement.

“I can still remember the recipe,” Ruff chuckles. “It was 18 shovelfuls of sand, a bag of cement, a small bucket of lime, and if you can believe this, back then we’d throw two handfuls of asbestos in there. Never had gloves on.”

Hakstol chose a more apparent risk, climbing on the winter roof at the farmhouse when the TV signal went out during Hockey Night in Canada.

“We had three channels on the farm. Four, with the French [CBC],” he says. “You got your reception through the antenna up on the roof, and if the wind turned it, somebody had to go up and switch it back. I was the youngest, so I got to go up on the roof often, and they’d be yelling from down in the living room when the reception got good.”

Today, Ruff and Hakstol are doing all the yelling. They’re eight years apart — Hakstol is 47, Ruff 55 — but the two Warburgers have taken all that hockey knowhow passed down from Gordie Schnick and turned it into NHL coaching gigs.

“What are the odds?” Hakstol asks.

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