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> Laxdal might get his chance in the AHL
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post May 1 2010, 06:36 PM
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If Arniel goes, Moose might look out to Idaho
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Curious how paths can cross over time.

In 1984, Derek Laxdal was a high-scoring winger with the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Wheat Kings trainer way back then was Craig Heisinger. And Laxdal's brother, Jimmy, was teammates on the Stonewall Jets with an aspiring sports writer who had a full head of hair and was starting off his career at the Stonewall Argus weekly newspaper.

Flash forward 26 years and the 44-year-old Derek Laxdal is the head coach of the ECHL's Idaho Steelheads and recently won the John Brophy Trophy as coach of the year. Heisinger is general manager of the AHL's Manitoba Moose. And that sports writer doesn't have any hair (see accompanying mug shot).

We bring this up because there's a lot of noise being made about Scott Arniel, a former coach of the year with the Moose, getting a gig in the NHL. Well deserved, if it happens.

If Arniel goes, there will be no shortage of applicants, in particular current Moose assistant coach Keith McCambridge, who is from Thompson. But let the record show that Laxdal, whose Steelheads are currently playing in the ECHL's conference final after posting a league-best 48-17-2 record, is another local boy with qualifications to be in the mix.

Interestingly, the Steelheads' archrival over the last few years has been the Alaska Aces, McCambridge's old team. In fact, when Laxdal guided Idaho to the Kelly Cup championship three years ago, the Aces were one of their victims (McCambridge was then Alaska's assistant coach). There's those paths crossing again.

It's not as though Laxdal hasn't paid his dues. At the turn of the century, the former 151st overall pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs packed up his family and moved from Sheffield, England, where he played for the Sheffield Steelers, to central Texas to become a player-assistant with the Central Hockey League's Odessa Jackalopes. In 2001, he hung up his blades for good to become the Jackalopes assistant coach.

How far was Odessa from the NHL?

Well, for starters Laxdal, along with the duties of running the minor hockey program, sharpened skates for fans, who were allowed to go on the ice after games. He even drove the Zamboni.

"You know what?" Laxdal chuckled from Boise, Idaho, the other day. "That was the best 20 minutes of every hour. You go out on the ice and there's no phones ringing. There's no parents calling, telling how great their kids are and want them to get more ice time."

Grooming

The beauty part, though, was that Laxdal essentially relearned hockey from the ice up. He even got a certificate in skate sharpening, for Pete's sake. And, eventually, after a couple more years of grooming as head coach of the CHL's Wichita Thunder, he graduated to the Steelheads in 2006.

In Boise, Laxdal wears a lot of helmets in running the Dallas Stars affiliate. He's the head coach, the recruiter, the schedule maker. Everything but skate sharpener.

"If someone catches me talking to myself in the mirror," he said, "I tell them I'm talking to my assistant coach."

No, it's hasn't been glamorous, especially considering that Laxdal once wore the Maple Leafsw jersey in Toronto, scoring nine goals in 41 games in the late 1980s.

"But you have to start somewhere," he reasoned. "A lot of NHL guys, they can get a chance to step into coaching at the high end. A lot of times, where you finish off (playing) is where you can get a chance to get your foot in the door. It's a passion for the sport.

"If I had the same passion for playing that I had for coaching," he added, "I think I would have played a few more years in the NHL. I can honestly say that."

Back in the day, coaches were telling Laxdal, a big forward, to play like Cam Neely. "But I thought I was Mike Bossy," he said.

It was a stint with Tom Renney's national team in 1994 that gave Laxdal the coaching bug. Along the way, though, he bounced around everywhere, from the Nottingham Panthers (England) to Ilves Tampere (Finland) to the ECHL's Roanoke Express (North Carolina).

In essence, Laxdal the coach wants to coach Laxdal the player. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The Steelheads have 12 rookies on their team and only two veterans out of four allowed.

Yet they finished atop the ECHL standings before sweeping Utah in the first round with a lineup that includes former Moose Mark Derlago and goaltender Rejean Beauchemin.

Don't misunderstand: Laxdal isn't politicking for a job in Manitoba. But he runs a hockey camp each summer in Stonewall, where his family still resides. His roots are here.

"Obviously, it would be an honour," he said. "If Arnie moves on, there will be a lot of resumés there."

Whether the Moose ever come calling or not, there's every chance Laxdal is ready to take the next step somewhere. Perhaps the Wheat Kings' GM/head coach Kelly McCrimmon might want to step down some day. Who knows?

After all, the coach who won the John Brophy Trophy three years ago, Davis Payne, is now head coach of the St. Louis Blues. At the time, Payne was head coach of those same Alaska Aces who lost to Laxdal's Steelheads in the Kelly Cup final.

Perhaps, one day, paths will cross again.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2010 D3
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