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Ex-journeyman now bench boss

Oilers coach Eakins often cut by Jets 1.0

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Head coach Dallas Eakins instructs his Oilers during the first period Tuesday evening. He rejects the ‘young team’ perspective, with the Cup being the goal this season.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Head coach Dallas Eakins instructs his Oilers during the first period Tuesday evening. He rejects the ‘young team’ perspective, with the Cup being the goal this season. Photo Store

Dallas EAKINS used to hate to see Craig Heisinger coming his way because it usually meant he'd been cut by the Winnipeg Jets.

Eakins and a few other minor-leaguers referred to Heisinger, then the Jets equipment manager and now the club's assistant general manager, as the Grim Reaper.

 

Heisinger's job was to tell players to report to the GM, but when he became one himself, he brought Eakins back to Winnipeg and made him captain of the Manitoba Moose.

Along the way, Heisinger noticed a few things about the man who is now head coach of the Edmonton Oilers that foreshadowed the day when he would have his own NHL bench.

'It's the only way I know how to do it. You have to believe your message. You have to live your message every day'

-- Oilers coach Dallas Eakins

"Dallas was a student of the game. He always knew what was going on and he has the right personality and demeanour," said Heisinger. "Dallas was very close to Roger Neilson and that's an important and good connection. It's hard to put your finger on it but it doesn't surprise me that Dallas is a coach."

While there were many nervous moments in Eakins' playing career, which saw him constantly shuttled between the NHL, AHL and IHL while playing over 1,000 pro games, there is little of that now.

Eakins is, and this might be a bit of an understatement, sure of himself.

Some might find Eakins' confidence a little premature as he's yet to have coached a single regular-season game in the NHL but it's that inner belief that kept him employed as a fringe player for all those years. It's also what makes him a good coach.

"It's the only way I know how to do it. You have to believe your message. You have to live your message every day," said Eakins. "The message for me, right now, isn't so much system. It's habits, how we're going to work, our expectations as individuals. Those will never change and we're pounding that home right now. Being a new coach, you have to flex your muscles. They have to know you mean business and, at the same time, that you have their best interests at heart."

The Oilers are one of the five youngest teams in the NHL and likely still have some learning to do before a young core that includes Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov are ready to dominate. Eakins doesn't want to hear it.

"I've made this very clear. This is not a young team anymore. This is a team of players where the expectation is to win every night," said Eakins. "I don't know how you coach a team where that isn't the expectation. Even if the experts think a team is going to finish in the basement, how do you go into a team and say, 'All right boys, let's play this year and it's OK if you finish 12th.' Well, it's not. I think organizations that use the young label, it says a quiet message to those players that it's OK to lose. It's not OK with me."

Eakins played his last games as a pro with the Moose and then joined the Toronto Maple Leafs organization as a coach, spending the last four seasons running the Marlies.

This summer, his name got hot and he was mentioned for a number of jobs including the Vancouver Canucks when the Oilers came out of the blue and hired him. Eakins, along with his actress-wife, Ingrid Kavelaars, and their two daughters packed up and moved to Edmonton.

One of Eakins' key coaching principles is based on fitness. He's a fanatic about it personally and he demands an elite level from his players. It's not a sometimes thing. It's an absolute.

"I don't understand this. Lots of people like to throw the Wayne Gretzky one at me. I don't know how they know this but they say he wasn't a very fit player but he was the best player in the game. Well, when Wayne Gretzky shows up again, he'll be allowed to not be fit. These guys are professional athletes. I just told my players the other day, 'You are (Rafael) Nadal, you are Usain Bolt, you are Simon Whitfield. You are all these great athletes," said Eakins. "You're a professional athlete and part of that is being fit. Every night these games in the NHL and the American league are so close, and they're usually decided by a mistake. And that mistake is almost always a tired mistake. So why wouldn't you want to be fit? Why would you push back on that?"

Not surprisingly, Eakins is clear and powerful as a shot of vodka on the subject of his goals.

"I shared this with the players. This organization has opened its arms to me. I feel like I've known Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe all my life. But I know I'm not one of them yet. And the reason is they have Cup rings and I don't," he said. "I asked the players, 'How many of you have a Cup ring?' Two put their hands up. So 99 per cent of the players and myself have something in common. We don't have something that our friends above us have.

"So that's it. I want to be part of a team that wins a Stanley Cup."

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2013 0

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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