Willie Desjardins has had the benefit of spending a lot of time in two towns with a lot of great food: Austin, Tex., where the AHL Texas Stars called home, and now Vancouver, B.C., as the first-year coach of the Canucks.
What’s the best thing he’s eaten in his new home?
“Probably pasta. With chicken.”
“No, wait,” said the 57-year-old coach. “Sushi.”
Desjardins coached the Seibu Bears in Japan some years ago, and admitted that he missed the sushi boat while living there; which is weird, considering it was about as plentiful as oxygen. He didn’t really find a love of sushi until moving to Vancouver, where the team chef would prepare it for the coaches after games. Nothing too crazy – salmon, mostly – but Desjardins has learned to like the raw stuff.
He had better, considering how rough and raw and painful the NHL coaching grind can be for a newbie. Despite eight years with Medicine Hat, two years as an associated coach with the Dallas Stars and two as head coach with the AHL Stars, this is Desjardins’ first crack at being an NHL head coach.
We spoke with him this week about that transition; about joining a team with a fresh set of managers; about coaching the Sedins, Ryan Miller and Zack Kassian; and about how a toxic situation last season under John Tortorella has become happy sunshine under Desjardins.
(If we have but one regret, it’s not asking him about being from Climax, Saskatchewan. Oh well, next time.)
But first, we had to ask why he’s ruining our fun.
Q. On Thursday night, Roberto Luongo returns to Vancouver to face the Canucks for the first time. Why are you such a killjoy by not starting Eddie Lack?
DESJARDINS: [Laughs] “I thought about it. It was Eddie’s birthday the other day. I wanted to give him a present and give him a start that night.” [Ed Note: He beat the Islanders on Tuesday.]
What’s different between coaching in the AHL and the NHL?
“I don’t think there’s a big difference between the NHL and the American League. Maybe speed. And maybe the NHL players … I don’t want to say they’re not as quick to buy in, but they’ll study it a little longer before they buy in. They’re just really smart guys. They think the game so well. They go to this level based on how smart they are.
"It’s natural. They’ve heard a lot of things before. So when something new comes along they just wait a little longer before they jump in. It’s not that they’re disrespectful, because they’re respectful. It’s not that they don’t give it everything they have, because they do. They just evaluate it a little bit more.”
So does it then become an issue of “proof of concept?” Do you need W’s in order for them to buy-in?
“It helps, but not necessarily. They’re smart enough to know if something’s working even if their not winning right now, but if they do it over a period of time it will work. They understand that. But in the end, you’re going to have to win, or there’s going to be … some evaluation on it.
How much easier was the transition for you in Vancouver when both general manager Jim Benning and president Trevor Linden are new, too?
“I think it was because everybody was really excited about coming in and working together because it was our first chance at it. Your first time, you’re not as cynical. There was a lot of positive energy to feed off of everybody. That’s just great, to come into that environment.
“A lot of this is Trevor Linden, and his approach to the game. To me, when I come in here, it feels like we’re all working together. We all have different roles, but we’re working together. And he’s a real reason for that.
No one’s been there for years, trying to keep his job. If this was a Monopoly game, you’re all in “START.” No one has a hotel yet, no one’s got a house yet.
“I think Trevor has a few more houses than I have, to tell you the truth.” [Laughs]
Currently, you have the team slightly better than where they were last season. What’s going to prevent another second-half struggle for the Canucks?
“It’s about how you’re trending. We’ve hit a plateau here lately: Trending really good early, and flattening off a little bit. And the second time to trend up is going to be tougher than the first. It’s a lot of hard work, and we have a lot of really good teams to play.
“It’s a challenge, for sure, because I’m focusing on all the teams around us. But if I focus on us, then our goaltending’s been good. We’ve had good performances on the back end. Our forward lines are chipping in on different nights. And we’ve had some good games against top teams. So that helps you. If you don’t play well against them, then you start wondering if you ever can.”
Sounds like you look around that Western Conference and your jaw just hits the ground.
“[Laughs] Man, it’s tough. And even if you’re not there, every other team you’re facing’s good too.
“All the teams feel that. But I know on some nights, we haven’t been as good as we need to be.”
Even strength has been a struggle. The Canucks are around No. 23 at 5-on-5 as we speak. What’s going on there?
“That’s a real bad stat for us. If you look at the best teams in the league, that number has to be higher. So that’s not a good number.
“If you look at our record over the last 7-8 games, since the New York game, we cut down our goals against quite a bit. We made adjustments, because we were giving up way too many goals. I think it’s gotten better in the last five games.”
Specifically on a few players: What were your expectations for coaching Henrik and Daniel Sedin? I have to believe that’s a rather unique situation.
“I coached against them, so I knew they were really good players. Really high hockey IQ. What I didn’t know was what they were like as people and leaders. Before I took the job, I did some research, and found out what high-end character people they really are.
“I felt they would give me a chance to coach. Some situations are easier than others. Some players will let you coach the way you want. And I thought they’d give me that chance, and that’s what they did.
“Even with how hard they work … it’s always easier when your best players are your hardest workers. If they don’t work hard, it’s hard to sit them or take away ice time if they’re not working hard. But they’re real good.”
What’s Bo Horvat given you and is he going to stick around?
“Bo’s been real good. You forgot he’s 19. I played him against Kopitar and Getzlaf. That’s a big step for a 19 year old to play against. Some days he hasn’t been quite as good, but he’s smart defensively and good on faceoffs and a good all-around player. He comes to play. Like the team overall, he needs to get better.”
What’s it like coaching Ryan Miller, who’s one of the most insightful guys in the League?
“[Laughs] He’s too smart for me.
“He sees a few things. I mean, he sees everything. The first time I talked to him, I was like ‘whoa, I didn’t think about that.’ But he’s really wide focused, too, extremely wise and really smart.
“There’s been a couple times … well, you have to learn about each other. Learning what he needs from me to be successful.
Zack Kassian’s been in the news lately concerning his role with this team, and whether Benning might move him. Where does his coach see him fitting with this team?
“I don’t get into that part of it. When it comes to Zack … I had him with [Nick] Bonino on the second line and things didn’t go like the team wanted and he wanted. So he got moved around and different things, and then he wasn’t playing the way he can play. Then he got hurt.
“He’s come back, he’s worked hard. Now it’s just a matter of finding out where he fits in.”
Talk to me about assistant coach Doug Lidster. Like Trevor, a Canucks great who came back. How much has he helped a guy like Alex Edler, who was coming off one of his worst NHL seasons?
“Alex has played so well for us. Not just on his play, but his attitude. He’s positive, he never complains, he plays physical, when things get tough he battles hard. And that’s probably not what I expected from Alex after the year before.
“Doug’s done a great job with him, and his demeanor with his defensemen is great. He believes in them, and they play hard for him. For whatever reason.”
It sounds like when you got there, you might have been a little wary about the room you were going to walk into. The Canucks struggled last year, there were a lot of discontented players.
“I have an attitude that says ‘if we go in and we do this, we’ll win.’ I’ve always been a guy that’s focused on what we need to do, and not what’s gone by. When I took the job, I knew there were some character guys in the room. Guys you can trust and lean on if you treated them right. I felt I had the right group.
“I also felt like with the year they had last year … they’d always been a team that had won. I felt they’d want to change that.”
What’s the Vancouver media experience been like? A few more cameras and mics than Austin?
“I had to laugh the first time I saw them. I was like ‘holy …’
“It’s been good. They’ve been real fair. Everybody has a different angle. They have a job, they’re trying to do their job, get their readers. The problem for coaches is that controversy creates a lot of interest. The coach, a lot of times, you’re trying to prevent the controversy. So sometimes there’s a little bit of a different agenda with the media and the coach and that can be tough.
Like a lot of other things, I’m sure the thing that came before you made that transition easier. You’re like a long yawn compared to Tortorella.
“[Laughs] Well, I don’t know. They’ve treated me well. I can’t complain.”
What do you do on the road to unwind?
“Probably work out. I don’t go out an awful lot. I sit and relax. Maybe go to Starbucks.
"It’s tough to get away from the game. I think about it a lot. I have to try to find ways not to think about it so much.”
What movies or TV do you like?
“Eh, whatever’s on the hotel TV.”
Was really hoping you weren’t going to say NHL Network, because that’s not a way to get away from the game.
“[Laughs] You end up doing that a lot. Watching teams you know you’re going to play soon. And sometimes you’re like ‘that’s the last thing I needed to do’, but it’s what you do.
“Everyone else in your life is asking if you ever get enough hockey, and you’re like ‘this is what happens.’”
Finally, you waited so long for this shot. What’s surprised you about it, versus what you expected out of it?
“It’s been way better than I could ever imagine. Such an opportunity to coach this group of athletes at this level. A person’s so lucky to have that opportunity. It’s not easy or anything. But I’ll get up, walk to work and just think, ‘Geez, what a great day.’ "
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