When the Medicine Hat Tigers went looking for a new coach seven years ago, general manager Rick Carriere put in a call to Dave King.
King, one of Canada’s most experienced hockey coaches, gave Carriere one name and one name only: Willie Desjardins.
“I said ’OK, anybody else?”’ Carriere recalls. “He said, ‘No, just phone Willie. Willie is the guy you want to hire.”’
It turned out to be the right choice for the Tigers, who made the playoffs in their first season under Desjardins after missing the post-season for five straight. The Tigers have won two Western Hockey League titles and made the playoffs every year with Desjardins behind the bench.
The 52-year-old from Climax, Sask., carried a .579 winning percentage into his eighth season with the Tigers, but now faces the greatest coaching challenge of his life.
After five years with marquee NHL names behind the Canadian junior team’s bench, Hockey Canada chose a man known in junior hockey circles, but not to the NHL community, to coach the national under-20 men’s hockey team.
Brent Sutter, Craig Hartsburg and Pat Quinn coached Canada to a combined straight five gold medals. Desjardins has been tasked with reeling in a record sixth starting Saturday in Saskatoon where Canada opens the 2010 world junior championship against Latvia.
“I can’t compare myself to what those coaches who have gone through,” Desjardins says. “There’s certainly some big-name coaches. I know I can’t compare myself to that level, but my coaching is OK.”
That last statement is a reflection of what King found in Desjardins when King coached and Desjardins played for him at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1980s. It’s also what made King feel Desjardins would make a fine coach.
“When you meet Willie, there’s no ego that jumps out at you,” said King, now an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes.
“Some coaches, you can tell right away there’s a bit of an ego on the line and things like that. Willie is just an honest, straightforward guy. He can deliver a message to you that you should hear and he can do it in the right way.
“He gives you the impression of stability. Nothing seems to shake him.”
King planted the coaching seed in Desjardins at Saskatchewan.
“When he came to the university, he just turned that program around,” Desjardins recalled. “I never believed until that point in time a coach could have that kind of an impact on a team.
“He taught the game so well. There was always something new going on. He took the game to a different level for me.”
Desjardins’ special talent is connecting with his players and inspiring them to play their best hockey. That sounds like such a simple quality yet it’s one coaches struggle with whether it’s minor hockey or the NHL.
“If guys step on wrong side of the line once in awhile, on or off the ice, he’s right there to say, ’You know what? That’s a mistake. Let’s see how you recover from this,”’ says Carriere, now executive assistant with the Tigers after Desjardins took over as general manager in 2005.
“If they’re not playing real well, he’ll spend lots of time with them. He’s does a lot of one-on-one individual meetings and really gets to know the kids really well. He treats them good and they respond and go hard for him all the time.”
While Desjardins comes across as a laid-back man, he’s a bundle of intensity behind the bench. He lurches back and forth on his feet and throws his shoulders in concert with his players’ checks, passes and shots out on the ice.
“I do get a little intense during the game,” Desjardins admits. “I think that helps me. It’s just important to keep it at the right level.”
Desjardins took on a variety of coaching assignments after his university career concluded.
Prior to joining the Tigers, Desjardins coached in Japan on two separate occasions. He was an assistant coach to Mike Johnston with the national men’s team in 1998-99 and at the 1999 world championship.
His ties to Saskatoon are strong as he was captain of the Huskies and also coached the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades in 1997 before joining the national team.
He and his wife Rhonda have three children: Brayden, 16, Sheehan, 14 and 10-year-old Jayce.
In the off-season, Desjardins and his father Paul have operated the Cypress Hills Golf Course in southwestern Saskatchewan for about two decades and their lease with the provincial government extends beyond 2020.
King believes Desjardins has the temperament to guide Canada through the emotional swings of a short, intense tournament like the world junior championship.