Laxdal gets a little help from his mentors
Oil Kings head coach has learned the game from eclectic mix of hockey’s best minds
By John MacKinnon, edmontonjournal.com
May 20, 2012
Edmonton Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal diagrams plays for the team as they return to practice on April 30 as they prepare for Thursday’s Game 1 of the WHL championship against the Portland Winterhawks at Rexall Place , 2012 in Edmonton.
Photograph by: Greg Southam
SHAWINIGAN, Que. – Derek Laxdal picked up the nickname “Dabble” during a one-year gig with, of all teams, the Ottawa Loggers of the defunct Roller Hockey International league in the mid-1990s.
The moniker doesn’t signify what you might think, because Laxdal is no hockey dilettante. The nickname is actually DABL, an acronym which stands for Derek (All Business) Laxdal.
“I kind of like that,” the Edmonton Oil Kings head coach said. “I kind of live by that.”
His Oil Kings players would attest to that. So does the fact that Laxdal has the Western Hockey League club in the MasterCard Memorial Cup in his second year behind the bench in Edmonton.
Still, some of the choices he has made in an 18-year playing career that included stops with 16 teams in eight leagues scattered across four countries, make you wonder.
In 1994, in an effort to rejuvenate a flagging career, he turned away from an offer to play in Germany for $80,000 (tax free) to play for head coach Tom Renney with Canada’s national team for about $30,000 (taxable).
He hoped Renney’s practise-intense, technically sound national team would be a launching pad back to the AHL or NHL. That never quite happened.
But it was Renney who suggested Laxdal obtain his Hockey Canada coaching levels, as they’re known. Now, all Laxdal needs to do to obtain his Level IV (Masters level) is to deliver an oral defence of what’s known as his YPI, or detailed yearly plan.
As it turned out, Laxdal played several more years in Europe, including a couple of stints in Sheffield, England, where he crossed paths with Don McKee, the longtime head coach of the University of Waterloo varsity team and one of Canada’s renowned hockey minds.
Working in Sheffield as a player-assistant under McKee led to a similar gig under McKee with the Odessa (Texas) Jackalopes of the old WCHL.
“Everything I had learned in Hockey Canada (coaching levels), I got a chance to implement as a coach.”
His second year in Texas, Laxdal was a full-time assistant. But for the organization to make it work financially, he also doubled as the director of youth hockey in the area.
“I had to drive the Zamboni, teach youth hockey, do everything a youth hockey director would do — as well as be a full-time assistant coach, all for $600 a week.
“You have to invest your time to invest in where you want to go.”
It has been a circuitous journey for Laxdal, who has learned from an eclectic mix of excellent hockey mentors, including Renney, McKee, Al Arbour and Don Maloney.
“Don McKee was the first coach I had, and Tom (Renney) is right up there, who really, really cared for you,” Laxdal said. “Not only as an athlete but as a person.”
McKee remains a confidante. He was in Edmonton, attending an Oil Kings practice after they won the WHL championship. He’ll be in Shawinigan this week, as well.
When Laxdal applied for the vacant Oil Kings job two seasons ago, it was Renney who suggested his name to Oil Kings general manager Bob Green. McKee, who got to know Kevin Lowe at hockey schools years ago, strongly recommended his old Jackalope assistant to the Oilers president.
Another role model for Laxdal was John Brophy, the craggy, tough-as-nails longtime minor league player and coach. Their paths crossed when both were in the Toronto organization.
Laxdal got a taste for Brophy’s old-school methods as a playoff call-up from junior with the Maple Leafs farm club in St. Catharines, Ont.
“To get the young players in shape, Brophy would put them in a room with those old white (exercise) bikes,” Laxdal said. “He’d have a heater blowing down on us, and we’d be in there pedalling with half our equipment on.
“It was crazy. Like, you couldn’t do that nowadays. Even in practice, it was all hard work, play the game the right way, respect the game and have a passion about it.’
Like McKee and Renney, Brophy wanted his players to do well.
“But if you didn’t do well, you heard about it. He made you accountable, which was good.”
Laxdal’s coaching style is a blend of the cerebral, technical side of the game he learned under Renney and McKee, and the passionate, “play-the-game” right approach of Brophy.
In his fifth year coaching the Idaho Steelheads of the East Coast Hockey League, the season before he came to Edmonton, he won coach-of-the-year honours, which meant he accepted the John Brophy Award, something Laxdal is particularly proud of.
Laxdal remains in regular contact with his network of hockey mentors, picks their brains, teaches at coaching symposiums alongside them now.
He’s always learning.
“If you’re not doing that, you’re not turning over every rock to be the best coach you can be,” Laxdal said. “Winning is fun, but there’s a process involved in it.”
Even if, in Laxdal’s case, the process more closely resembles a saga.
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