REGINA — His passion kept him toasty on the outdoor rinks in frigid Flin Flon and energized him during a long and winding pro career that featured a brief stay in the NHL and stops in Saint John, N.B., Waco, Texas, and Milan, Italy.
And it fuels him today as he coaches junior hockey.
Dave Struch has had a 45-year love affair with hockey — and he’ll add a few more snapshots to his album of memories on Sunday afternoon. The Manitoban will be behind the bench at Mosaic Stadium when his Regina Pats host the Calgary Hitmen in the Western Hockey League’s Prairie Classic outdoor game, the day after the Heritage Classic between the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames.
Struch, 48, says it’s only fitting that a kid who played shinny just about every night until his fingers, toes and cheeks stung would get an opportunity to participate in a game on a far grander stage, while still at the mercy of Mother Nature.
"For me, being in Flin Flon, we had an outdoor rink right behind Johnny’s Confectionary and we were there every day. And I tell you, it was the start of my passion for the game. This is the first time I’ve been involved in an organized outdoor game, and with the magnitude of it and how well-organized it is, it’s really special to be a part of," Struch told the Free Press in a one-on-one interview Friday.
Ticket sales are pushing toward 12,000. Game time is set for 2 p.m., under a cloudy sky and a midday temperature of -2 C.
"It’s very special for me personally, but moreso for our Pats organization, our players, the entire staff and, most importantly, the fans. They’re going to get an amazing experience at the NHL game before, and that’s going to carry over into our game and really help us out-playing outdoors in our home city," he said.
The Pats definitely could use a spark. The squad is last in the WHL’s East Division, with just a pair of victories in 12 games, while the Hitmen are 6-2-1 and in the middle of the pack in the Central.
Struch missed the team’s 6-5 shootout victory over the Red Deer Rebels last Saturday after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. General manager and fellow Manitoban John Paddock called the shots for one game.
Struch is in his second season as the head coach in Regina after taking over prior to the 2018-19 season, when Paddock, a former Jets 1.0 coach head coach, stepped away from the bench to focus solely on his duties as GM. Struch had previously served as Paddock’s top assistant for four seasons.
He was interviewed for the Pats’ head-coaching job in 2014 but lost out to Paddock. Struch said he was pretty upset about getting the snub, and wouldn’t bite on the team’s offer of a position as an assistant coach — until he received a call from the fortunate candidate.
"I wanted to be a head coach. I was ready for it. I was adamant I didn’t want to be an assistant. Then John called me a week later, and we spoke for two hours. We only spoke for 15 minutes about hockey, the rest was on family, life, people, things about each other," Struch said. "An hour later, I called him and said, ‘I’m all in.’"
Coaching was always in the cards for the former Saskatoon Blades star centre, who was drafted in the ninth round of the 1991 NHL entry draft by the Calgary Flames and played in the organization for five seasons. He suited up four times during the 1993-94 campaign but didn’t register a point.
His NHL debut couldn’t have happened at a more regal hockey shrine.
"My first game was at Madison Square Garden and I remember getting lost in there before the game. I got called up (from the Saint John Flames of the American Hockey League) and got there before the team came in, and I had no idea the rink was on the fifth floor," he recalled. "Really exciting to play there. Mark Messier was playing for them then (the Rangers won the Stanley Cup that year). Then, we went off to meet the (New York) Islanders, then off to Pittsburgh and then home to Calgary to play the Quebec Nordiques."
The defining moments of his fleeting stint in the show? Getting schooled at the faceoff dot by a six-time Cup champion and NHL hall of famer.
"(Penguins centre) Bryan Trottier beat me four straight faceoffs clean, as if he was making a one-time pass to his defencemen," Struch said. "We had Joel Otto on the bench, one of the best faceoff men in the league at the time. But our coach, Dave King, kept me out for all those draws. When I came off, he and (assistant coach) Guy Charron laughed at me, reminding me that guy I was up against ‘was pretty good."’
The following season, Struch blew out a knee early in the season in Saint John and spent the following 16 months recovering from surgeries. The dream to return to the NHL evaporated then and there, but the memories remain for the coach, who has three kids — daughter Avery, 11, and sons Rylan, 9, and Jesse, 6, with his wife, Andrea.
"As much as you want to play in the NHL, there’s no way to know if it will ever happen. So, when it does, it’s pretty surreal. Having a taste of it is a real special feeling. Staying there is, obviously, the hardest part," said Struch, who still has family in the Flin Flon area and in other parts of the province.
Struch went on to play nine years in Europe, split between clubs in Austria, Italy, England and Germany. He spent the 2002-03 season with the Bracknell Bees (Berkshire) in southeast England, taking a regular shift while making all the head-coaching decisions.
"The hockey was really good, we had a lot of North Americans and they all listened to me, thankfully," he said, laughing. "But I had known all my life that when I was done playing, I wanted to coach. I was a career minor-leaguer, but I knew the game, so I took a lot of my coaching levels in the summer so that when I was done playing (in 2005), I was ready.
"I still have so much emotion for the game of hockey, so it’s rewarding to see young guys develop and do well, make mistakes and then correct those mistakes, and, more importantly, seeing them develop as people."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).