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Laxdal living the dream with Dallas

Stars assistant coach much travelled since his days in Stonewall

EDMONTON — Hockey has taken Manitoba's Derek Laxdal all over the world, producing a resumé that is as impressive as it is long.

HE'S BEEN EVERYWHERE, MAN

A look at Derek Laxdal's extensive playing and coaching career:

PLAYER:
1982-83 — Portland Winter Hawks, WHL
1983-84 — Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL
1984-85 — Brandon Wheat Kings

A look at Derek Laxdal's extensive playing and coaching career:

PLAYER:
1982-83 — Portland Winter Hawks, WHL
1983-84 — Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL
1984-85 — Brandon Wheat Kings
1984-85 — St. Catharines Saints, AHL
1984-85 — Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
1985-86 — Brandon Wheat Kings
1985-86 — New Westminster Bruins, WHL
1985-86 — St. Catharines Saints
1986-87 — Newmarket Saints, AHL
1986-87 — Toronto Maple Leafs
1987-88 — Newmarket Saints
1987-88 — Toronto Maple Leafs
1988-89 — Newmarket Saints
1988-89 — Toronto Maple Leafs
1989-90 — Newmarket Saints
1989-90 — Springfield Indians. AHL
1989-90 — New York Islanders, NHL
1990-91 — New York Islanders
1990-92 — Capital District Islanders, AHL
1992-93 — Canadian national team
1993-94 — Ilves Tampere SM-liiga
1994-95 — Roanoke Express, ECHL
1995-96 — Humberside Hawks, BHL
1996-98 — Nottingham Panthers, BISL
1998-2000 — Sheffield Steelers, BISL
1999-01 — Odessa Jackalopes, WPHL

COACH:
2000-01 — Odessa Jackalopes, WPHL, assistant
2001-03 - Odessa Jackalopes CHL Assistant
2002-05 — Wichita Thunder, CHL, head
2005-10 — Idaho Steelheads, ECHL, head
2010-14 — Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL, head
2014-20 — Texas Stars, AHL, head
2019-20 — Dallas Stars, NHL, assistant

A four-year junior career involving three clubs. A 17-year pro career spanning 13 teams in seven leagues and four countries. And now a 20-year coaching career with six franchises in six leagues. Just like the famous ballad from Johnny Cash, the 54-year-old native of Stonewall really has been everywhere, man.

Laxdal's latest stop has him on the doorstep of the goal he used to picture as a kid — winning a Stanley Cup. The rookie assistant coach with the Dallas Stars admits it still doesn't seem real.

"I don't think you could have drawn this up in your wildest dreams," he told the Free Press this week in a lengthy chat in the hockey hub of Edmonton.

The Stars have already punched their ticket to the big dance and will face either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the New York Islanders, trying to bring an NHL championship back to Texas for the first time since 1999.

"Knock on wood, to get to the Stanley Cup final in your first year as an assistant coach in the NHL is pretty surreal," said Laxdal.

Even more surreal is the fact Laxdal wasn't really supposed to be here, at least not this way. He began the season coaching the Stars' AHL affiliate near Austin, well into his sixth season behind their bench. But that all changed when Dallas axed head coach Jim Montgomery in early December for undisclosed "unprofessional conduct."

"Knock on wood, to get to the Stanley Cup final in your first year as an assistant coach in the NHL is pretty surreal." – Derek Laxdal

Rick Bowness, the former Winnipeg Jets player turned coach who was an assistant to Montgomery, took over. And Laxdal got the promotion to the big leagues he'd been patiently waiting for.

"I don't think I could ask for a better situation. To work with a coach who's been in the NHL for five decades. I was playing junior hockey when Rick was coaching with the Jets. You see his reputation around the league. He's just a loved guy. His personality, he treats everyone with respect, he's a bubbly, energetic guy. He's made my transition easy from day one," said Laxdal.

Not a lot was expected out of Dallas when this unique summer playoff tournament began. They limped into the COVID-19 pause in mid-March on a six-game losing streak, clinging to the fourth-place spot in the Western Conference, which granted them a bye through the qualifying round. In fact, had the Winnipeg Jets not defeated the Edmonton Oilers on March 11, Connor McDavid's crew would have jumped the Stars and forced them into a play-in series.

Things didn't initially look any better out of the pause, as Dallas lost an exhibition game to the Nashville Predators, followed by round-robin losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and the Colorado Avalanche before squeaking out a shootout win over the St. Louis Blues to snap what had grown into a nine-game drought. Many pundits — including yours truly — predicted a speedy Stars exit from the bubble.

Don't we all look foolish now. After eliminating the Calgary Flames in six games during the first round, Dallas stepped up its game by upsetting the heavily favoured Avalanche (in seven) and Golden Knights (in five) to reach the promised land.

"I don't think I could ask for a better situation. To work with a coach (Rick Bowness) who's been in the NHL for five decades." – Derek Laxdal

Some of the credit must go to Laxdal, who along with fellow assistant coach Todd Nelson runs the club's potent power play that is clicking at 27.3 per cent in the post-season. The modest Manitoban was quick to deflect praise.

"Bones (Bowness) has done an awesome job with the staff. He's been clear and concise with his plan, and he likes a lot of input. For him to do what he's doing now says a lot about his personality and the man that he is. You see the guys play hard for him. He's done a great job here in the bubble, making sure everybody's in a good spot. I think the team takes on the identity of the head coach, and it's been rewarding for both sides," said Laxdal.

"And the circumstances of being in the bubble and being the underdog in every series tells you a bit about our team. Right from the get-go when we started training camp in July the guys have been dialed in. They came in in great shape. I think you're seeing the fruits of their work right now."

It hasn't been easy being locked down inside the secure environment for the past two months, but Laxdal said his team has handled it well. They have been able to get away from the hotel and rink for a couple of golf excursions while keeping focused on the task at hand.

Forward Derek Laxdal played parts of three seasons with the Wheat Kings from 1983-86.

BRANDON SUN FILE PHOTO

Forward Derek Laxdal played parts of three seasons with the Wheat Kings from 1983-86.

"We went golfing on Tuesday and it felt a bit like you were running away from home or escaping prison," Laxdal joked. "Mentally, you just have to embrace where you are and make do with what you have. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. We have about two weeks left and then we go home. That's going to make some pretty intense hockey going forward."

Laxdal, who starred for the Brandon Wheat Kings in junior, played a total of 67 NHL games with the Toronto Maple Leafs (which drafted him 151st overall in 1984) and the New York Islanders. The bulk of his playing time was spent in the ECHL, AHL and overseas in Finland and England before retiring in 2001.

He's had great success as a coach, guiding the Idaho Steelheads to the ECHL title in 2006-07 and the Edmonton Oil Kings to WHL banners in 2011-12 and 2013-14, including a Memorial Cup that season. That led to him being hired by the Stars organization to lead their young prospects, and his stint in Texas including a trip to the AHL final in 2017-18.

Many of the players now skating for the Stars were with him on the farm, including Denis Gurianov, who sniped the OT winner against Vegas on Monday night to send Dallas to the Stanley Cup final.

"You almost feel like a proud father," Laxdal said of seeing some of those young players now shining on a big stage.

Laxdal runs a hockey school in Rivers every summer, including in 2019.

PERRY BERGSON / BRANDON SUN FILES

Laxdal runs a hockey school in Rivers every summer, including in 2019.

Although they aren't with him in the bubble, Laxdal has a huge cheering section in Manitoba. His wife, two daughters and granddaughter are in Brandon, his mother and brother are in Stonewall and he has a sister in Winnipeg. The family still maintains a cottage at Steep Rock, and Laxdal runs a hockey school in Rivers every summer.

"I've been getting a lot of text messages from back home wishing us good luck in the final. It's pretty surreal. Once we get through that first game and the first 10 minutes, then it’s on. But we're at the pinnacle, this is what you coach for, this is what you play for, to be part of it. I feel very blessed, very honoured the Dallas Stars provided me with the opportunity," said Laxdal.

"I guess once it's all said and done I'll have to sit back and take it all in. But right now you're just kind of living in the moment."

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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