VANCOUVER – It’s been 17 years since Don Hay coached Canada’s World Junior team to gold in Alberta. Yet still, it feels natural that the bench boss of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants will be trying to do it again in 2012.
Voted the WHL’s best coach of all time in 1999, the 57-year-old Hay has won three Memorial Cups with the Giants (2007) and Kamloops Blazers (1994, 1995). However, the way he guided a stacked Canadian roster to a perfect 1995 WJC record during the first NHL lockout is his biggest international claim to fame. He’s expected to preach a hard-hitting yet disciplined style in Edmonton and Calgary as Team Canada guns for its first title since 2009.
The Canadians lost the final 6-5 in overtime to their cross-border rival, the United States, in Saskatoon in 2010, and stunningly squandered a 3-0 lead through two periods versus Russia in Buffalo last year, losing 5-3. So unquestionably, the heat will be on Hay during the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship, and this former NHL head coach (Phoenix, Calgary) is already starting to gear up for it mentally.
IIHF.com’s Lucas Aykroyd caught up with Hay at the Giants’ practice facility, the Ladner Leisure Centre, on October 3.
What’s changed the most since you won gold with Canada in 1995?
I think the tournament has become much more competitive than it was in 1995. There are probably four teams that have a legitimate chance to win. Other countries have put more importance on this tournament than maybe they did in the past. That’s what’s so challenging. I firmly believe any team Canada brings has a chance to win a gold medal.
Every tournament, you’ll face a little adversity throughout. Your margin of error is pretty slim. Canada lost in overtime two years ago, and was leading going into the third period last year. Up to then, they were the best team. They faced a little adversity and it didn’t work out. But that’s all in the past. It’s a new team and a new challenge.
In 1995, you only played a couple of games in Calgary and Edmonton. Most of the games were in Red Deer. This time out, it’s all sold-out NHL arenas, all the way. How do you expect that atmosphere to affect your players?
I think the young players are exposed to that type of atmosphere so early nowadays. They go through the provincial under-16 and under-17 teams. They go to tournaments as U17 and U18 representatives for their countries. They get drafted. They play in prospect games, development camps, and NHL pre-season games. So I don’t think the impact of playing in a sold-out rink is as much as it was.
I remember on New Year’s Eve 1994, we played against the Czechs, and it was the biggest crowd at that time to watch a junior hockey game. It was quite a thrill. It was a loud building and a back-and-forth game. It was a little intimidating for the players.
But I don’t think they’re intimidated anymore. Once you’ve gone through that type of situation, you learn how to deal with it. In the Canadian Hockey League, there’s NHL-type buildings that kids play in nowadays with good crowds. I just think the players are so resilient that nothing bothers them much.
You’ve always been known as a motivator. In ‘95, you had a hockey stick on which every player wrote the name of someone they were dedicating the tournament to. You used a highlight video set to “Simply The Best” by Tina Turner. What kind of inspirational tactics do you have in mind for this year?
We’re still working on things like that. The time after you make your team and you get away – we’re going away to Banff for our training camp – that’s when you’ll do a lot of team-building. Once it’s December 26, we’ll have something in place.
Thinking back to 1995, who were some of the players that really stepped up in your run to gold?
Todd Harvey was our captain there, and he was a really typical North American player. He played with skill but mostly with grit, heart, and desire. He was a great player to lead our team. He’d played World Juniors the year before. He knew what it took to win, and he was prepared to do it.
Jason Allison had a good tournament as a big, strong, power guy. He also had experience from the year before. Probably the surprise of the tournament was Eric Daze as far as stepping up and leading the tournament in goals. He came out of nowhere. To me, Marty Murray was such a smart player, and could play a lot of different roles. I could go up and down the roster.
I remember talking to Ryan Smyth, Darcy Tucker, and Jeff O’Neill early on the morning of the cuts and asking them if they’d be prepared to play on the team if they didn’t get a lot of ice time. They all wanted the opportunity to play, and they all went on to have different roles on the team. You never know how the team changes through a tournament. You might have a role penciled in for a guy, but that role changes as the tournament heats up. Some people can handle that type of pressure, and some people don’t want it.
How would you compare the skill, size, and speed of today’s junior stars to their 1995 counterparts?
The team I had in 1995 was a pretty good hockey club, and the team in 2012 will be a good club. As far as skill and size, players are continually getting better and better. It’s at a very high level.
Right now, as we’re doing this interview, think of how many players still have an opportunity to play in the National Hockey League. Back then, there were fewer that had that opportunity. The NHL was an older league, and the salary cap has changed things too. But nowadays, hockey players are better. They get better development and coaching. And again, the hockey player in 1995 was better than in 1985. The game is continuing to move toward higher standards.
You’re connected to international hockey in a lot of ways. For instance, this season, you’re using Glen Hanlon as an assistant coach with the Giants, and he’s coached Belarus (2005, 2006, 2009) and Slovakia (2011) at the IIHF World Championship. Are you drawing on his international experience?
I haven’t really talked a lot about that with Glen. I’ve kind of relied on the experience of [2011 World Junior assistant coach] George Burnett, who’s coached the U18 and was an assistant at World Juniors last year. Scott Salmond with Hockey Canada has experience in international play. Maybe I’ll talk to Glen a bit more now. He’d be a really good resource and I’m going to start picking his brain more.
Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was recently named the Russian national senior team coach and could potentially be at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. You spent a year with him in Phoenix in 1996-97. What are your memories of working with him and his strengths as a coach?
Coach “Bil” was a really good coach. It was my first year as an NHL head coach in Phoenix, and Paul MacLean and Coach “Bil” were the assistant coaches. I thought we had a really good working relationship. “Bil” obviously has done very well for himself since then. You could tell at that time he was a really focused coach. He knew what he wanted to accomplish and understood the game at a very high level. It doesn’t surprise me one bit to see him being the coach of the national team.
In Phoenix, he did a lot of skill development for us, working with the D-men a lot, since he used to play defence, and working on the penalty kill. He’d do pre-scouting too. He came down from Winnipeg, where he worked with John Paddock. I really enjoyed working with “Bil.” He brought a different culture to the game, having played with those great Russian teams. Any time you play for a winning team, you can bring a lot of why-they-won to coaching.
There haven’t been many Russian coaches in North America. Were there cultural or communication issues?
Coaching is coaching. “Bil” spoke the same language, and we got along well. “Bil” had the Russian background, but when you sit down and talk coaching, you exchange ideas. You take what works for you. The biggest thing for assistant coaches is that they have to teach what the head coach wants. They have to translate their way of thinking. I thought our staff worked well.
After the tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslav plane crash in September, how much of a shock was it for you to hear about the passing of two of your former veteran Phoenix players in Brad McCrimmon and Igor Korolev?
It’s shocking and disappointing. I talked to Brad in July, and he was very excited about having the opportunity to go and be a head coach in Russia. I worked with Brad later in Calgary, too, where he was an assistant coach. I know his wife and children. With Iggy, he had a young family too. It’s just so sad that you lose these young men before they have the time to grow and be with their families. Hockey aside, whenever you’re separated from your family, it’s a huge loss.