West Coast Bias: When will the urgency to win take over in Winnipeg?

In lieu of Wednesday’s controversial Minnesota Wild goal, the HC at Noon crew say abolish this challenge rule, after being disgusted by a 9-minute delay during an awesome game.

It was 27 years ago. Gord Thibodeau was sitting out another week of his final season as a University of Alberta Golden Bear, and I was a cub reporter at the Edmonton Journal, Spidey senses tingling while the team’s best offensive defenceman stayed on the sidelines, with no explanation forthcoming.

So I asked him again, and finally, Thibodeau took me down to the far end of coach Clare Drake’s dressing room inside Varsity Arena, into the tiny trainer’s area, and ‘fessed up.

“The doctors think I might have cancer. They’re saying it’s Hodgkin’s Disease.”

Fast-forward nearly a quarter century to Friday morning, and I was dialling up the new winningest coach in Alberta Junior Hockey League history to say congratulations. After 23 years as an AJHL coach, Thibodeau’s Whitecourt Wolverines gave him career win No. 833 last Friday night, passing Calgary Canucks legend Don Phelps.

“Every time I get frustrated with this business, I think back to (U of A coaches) Clare Drake and Billy Moores for convincing me to give back to the game and become a coach,” he laughed. “More times though, I thank them.”[snippet]

Thibodeau began with the Fort Saskatchewan Traders (two seasons), went to the Sherwood Park Crusaders (21 games) — “We were in first place and I got relieved of my duties” — to the Lloydminster Bobcats (three and a half years), to the St. Albert Saints (three years), to the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (11 seasons), back to Lloyd for two, and now he is in his first year of a five-year deal in Whitecourt.

He never left for the Western Hockey League because of a promise to his daughter Tristan that she could finish high school in the same town that she started. And he’ll celebrate his 28th anniversary with wife Lori in June.

“The divorce rate of coaches that chase the dream is pretty high,” he said. “Something gets sacrificed along the way. I wasn’t prepared to do that.”

Of all the players on all the teams, Thibodeau can’t single one out. Pressed however, he goes back to a gangly kid who arrived on a tryout in Fort McMurray one summer.

“The kid worked so hard. He just didn’t get (to the NHL) because he was big,” Thibodeau said of Colton Parayko, now a defenceman for the St. Louis Blues. “He worked so hard on his craft, and as a coach you’re so proud of that. Watching him develop, that was a lot of fun.”

We reached out to Parayko and he sent us this text:

“I feel like he was the starting point of my career to a certain extent,” Parayko wrote. “He took a chance on me to make the Oil Barons and I learned so much from a hockey standpoint while I was there. He was a coach that made us work through hard situations, making us learn to keep pushing — even if it is hard. He was great in basically every aspect for me.”

As for the cancer, it turned out to be non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, which in some ways has been even more complicated for Thibodeau. It has come and gone, but always leaves Thibodeau susceptible to colds and viruses.

“There have been four (major) battles, but at least six other times where we thought it was back and magically it wasn’t,” he said. “The biopsy would come back and they’d say, ‘Well the lymph nodes were swollen but there was no cancerous cell.’

“The biggest fear for someone as challenged as I am is pneumonia. The treatments are ultimately, probably the killer, rather than the condition itself,” he said. “It’s ironic that this is the living I choose, even though it doesn’t make any sense to be in a cold rink eight months a year.”

Or for the next 20 years. Congratulations Gordie.

Boudreau’s Wild Ride
The thing about having Claude Julien, Ken Hitchcock and Gerard Gallant all unemployed at the same time, is that is greases the skids for other coaches whose general managers may be tempted to reach for the upgrade.

A good, veteran coach can have a major impact on a team. Just ask the Minnesota Wild and GM Chuck Fletcher, who let Mike Yeo go last February and hired Bruce Boudreau in May.

“It was his track record,” Fletcher said of Boudreau. “You just try not to overthink it. I had a few phone conversations with him, and within about six days we hired him.”

The Wild are for real — a legit Stanley Cup threat. Their goaltending is as good as there is in the NHL (yes, Montreal), they are four lines deep and have a deep, skilled D-corps. And Boudreau, despite the fact he struggled to navigate Washington and Anaheim through the conference playoffs, is a veteran hand on the tiller.

“He is unfailingly fair,” Fletcher said. “If you’re having a good game you play more, and if you’re struggling you don’t play as much. The next day you get a chance to make amends if you’d lost a few shifts the night before. As a player you can’t have a complaint, because it’s always about the team, always about winning.”

As for fired coaches, “We all know what’s going to happen to all of us. It’s just a matter of time,” Boudreau said.

When Julien was let go this week, Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice gave us the view from inside the coaches’ union.

“It usually (serves to) drive salaries up,” Maurice mused. “Claude has next year at three (million), so he’s going to be OK. And he’s probably not working for less the next time around.”

Agent Gil Scott, formerly the agent of choice for Canadian Football League players and the father of Oilers capologist Bill Scott, is now the most popular agent for NHL coaches. The coaches may not have a union, per se, but Godfather Scotty Bowman also keeps strong tabs on salaries, so everyone knows where they should be.

Low On Jets Fuel
Word in Winnipeg is that head coach Paul Maurice, who has one year remaining on his contract, will get an extension this summer regardless of whether the Jets make the playoffs. The feeling is that Maurice hasn’t been given good enough goaltending, which is true, and the overall patient approach in Winnipeg precludes firing a coach at this stage of the evolution.

From outside the market, you want to ask “When IS it time to win?” When does the slow build morph into a playoff-worthy product? Is there any urgency at all in Winnipeg, where they’ll have made the playoffs only once in six years if they miss this spring?

This season has been a goaltending nightmare, made worse by the fact defenceman Tyler Myers has played only 11 games. He had an undisclosed surgery — why wouldn’t a team just say what was operated on? — on Monday, and even though the Jets sounded hopeful he could return, no one returns in April and helps a playoff team after missing virtually the entire season.

“Not having Tyler has had a big impact,” Maurice said. “It’s pushed (Dustin) Byfuglien’s minutes to a point where I don’t think it’s helped him. As a positive, I guess (Jacob) Trouba has picked up a lot more minutes in that role, but we’ve missed (Myers) greatly.”

Scorey Perry?
Corey Perry has scored 311 goals over the past 10 seasons. That’s third in the NHL behind only Alex Ovechkin (453) and Steven Stamkos (321).

But this season he had played all 55 Anaheim games and had just nine goals, before erupting for two goals in Game 56, a 5-2 win at Buffalo Thursday night. Still, at 11 goals Perry is well off pace, and folks are wondering if this is simply an off year or if, at age 31, we are witnessing the beginning of the decline of a great Canadian national teamer.

We reached out to a couple of scouts who both leaned towards this simply being the same kind of off year offensively for Perry that Anze Kopitar (six goals this season), Patrice Bergeron (14 goals) and Jordan Eberle (11 goals) are struggling through. But Perry admits, even he is wondering where his usual 30-goal production disappeared to.

“You’re only human if you don’t, right?” Perry told the Orange County Register’s Eric Stephens. “You don’t obviously talk to yourself. But you know what’s going on. You’re just trying to figure out how to get back to what you were. It’s a matter of working harder. Doing extra. Whatever it may be. You got to try to find something.”[sidebar]

Perry has four goals since Dec. 13. One scout points out that the game has changed, but Perry’s game has not. The tricks of Perry’s trade that worked in 2011 aren’t working in 2017, and he’s not getting to the net enough to bang in those garbage goals he has always been so good at collecting.

“When the team’s struggling, it falls on your shoulders,” Perry said. “It falls on Getzy’s (Ryan Getzlaf’s) shoulders. It’s the two of us. We’re the leaders. We’re the guys that wear the letters on our shoulder. That’s when you have to reach back and try to find something extra.”

The thing about Perry is, he’s never been a great skater. So if he’s a tad slower today, that shouldn’t matter all that much. Now, if he’s lost a full step, that’s different.

“I think it’s just a bad year,” said another scout. He wouldn’t put Perry in the same boat as Shane Doan (40) or Jarome Iginla (39), two veterans who have definitely slowed down a step.


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