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Jerrard takes pride in helping players improve their game

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

The date is impossible to forget.

"Friday the 13th,'' muses Paul Jerrard, going on 21 years later.

"What are the odds?"

That evening in June of 1997 at Hamilton's Copps Coliseum, his Hershey Bears trimmed the homestanding Bulldogs 4-1 in Game 5 to lay claim to the Calder Cup championship.

Future Flames boss Bob Hartley held sway in Hershey back then.

The AHL's longest-running franchise collected the eighth title in its storied history.

And in his 10th and final pro season, the then 32-year-old Jerrard had at least reached the top of a mountain.

Maybe not the Everest or K2 a Stanley Cup represents, but a summit of distinction in which to plant his flag nonetheless.

"I'd never won a championship before,'' the Flames' assistant coach is reminiscing. "The experience gave me a whole new respect for people who call themselves champions. Dealing with four rounds. Playing through injury. Playing through mental fatigue. The camaraderie you build. Negotiating the Perfect Storms. That little bit of luck you need. How everything has to kind of align to be able to call yourselves the best at the end of the day.

"I don't care what level you're at.

"Going through it once makes you more appreciate those teams like the Islanders, winning four in a row the way they did.

"That year was special, certainly. The pinnacle of my career. My Stanley Cup."

When Glen Gulutzan, a trusted ally from their days together in the Dallas Stars organization, was hired here, Jerrard topped the list of candidates to align himself beside.

So he and Dave Cameron joined holdovers Martin Gelinas and Jordan Sigalet to form the coaching team entrusted with powering the Flames' franchise forward.

"He's a great hockey guy,'' says Gulutzan of Jerrard. "Honest. Quiet, a laid-back demeanour. But he can be firm when the situation calls for it. 

"He's been around the game a long time. I mean, he coached (Zdeno) Chara in the minors. The Trevor Daleys, the (Matt) Niskanens … he's worked with a lot of top-end young talent.

"In this job, you need people who are bunkered in with you. Obviously with our friendship and the kind of man he is, it's a great fit."

In an evolving hockey landscape, with more inclusion all the time, Jerrard remains the only black coach working behind a bench in the league.

"I've always tried to carry myself as a quality human being. A sincere person,'' he says simply.

"I don't look at white or black. I look at being a good person. I don't put extra pressure on myself to be a black role model. I put pressure on myself to be a good role model.

"Over the years, some things were said but I just defused them in my own way. That's the way I was raised by my mom.

"She told me: You have two choices on how to deal with things that aren't right.

"I think the steps we're seeing are exciting for everybody. Take a look at the rise in numbers of black players in the league. Take a look at the East Indian kid up in Edmonton (Jujhar Khaira). Those guys, the players, are the role models, not me. They allow everyone to dream.

"They give hope for all kids, lets them know that there is an opportunity."

Of good Winnipeg stock, reared in the East Kildonan/Transcona suburb, he got hooked on hockey early.

"I watched a lot of the old-time stuff, the Toronto Maple Leafs mainly. That's all I really knew. The Sittlers of the world. The Salmings of the world. The Davey Keons of the world.

"In Winnipeg, we had the old (WHA) Jets, of course. That Hull-Hedberg-Nilsson line. No. 4 (Lars-Erik Sjoberg) on the back end. Tommie Bergman.

"One of the guys in another sport that really struck a chord with me was Michael Jordan. His ability to win championships, to be there, put himself on the line, at crucial moments, when his team needed him most.

"Gretzky I always admired, too, the way he carried himself in public, that cool demeanour on and off the ice."

The Jerrard playing path began picking up steam at Notre Dame, Sask., his final two years of high school, followed by a scholarship and four years at Lake Superior State. Drafted in the ninth round by the NY Rangers he never played a game in Gotham before being traded to the Minnesota North Stars.

"I know I get listed as a defenceman all the time but I played significant portions of my career, both college and pro, as a forward.

"I probably preferred defence because I look at myself as a pretty good player from our goal-line to the tops of the circles. I enjoyed D more, I think, because you can survey, analyze the game, from back there."

Through his decade as a pro, Jerrard would suit up for five NHL games, all with the North Stars during the '88-89 season.

"I remember getting called up to play at Joe Louis against the Red Wings. I had no time to get nervous because I got the call after practice so it was a bit of a blur.

"We played them back-to-back. I don't think it was until we got back to Minny that the significance hit me. They played at the old Met Center then, which is now a parking lot for the Mall of Americas. It's funny, I tell my daughters every time we go to the Mall: 'This is where I played.' In a parking lot.

"From my brief NHL career, I guess there'd be two highlights. One: Going to play in the old Chicago Stadium, listening to the anthem. The second: Playing at home in Winnipeg at the old Arena in front of family and friends. It was the first pro hockey game I'd played that actually cost me money, because I had to buy all the tickets.

"Then you get sent back down and you keep telling yourself 'Keep working hard. Keep working hard. It'll come.'

"After getting a taste of life at the NHL level, of course, you want more.

"Unfortunately, for me the more never came."

Jerrard would play on for eight more seasons, in Kalamazoo and Albany, Milwaukee and Fresno, before the championship season in Hershey.

"After that season,'' he confesses, "I was tired. I was banged up. I also had another year left on my contract. So I looked at myself, where I was in life, as a person, being married with two kids, and I knew the end was near.

"Coaching was something I'd always wanted to do, I got an opportunity and I jumped at it."

Over his years shifting between defence and forward he'd been influenced by a number of successful coaches, among them Hartley, Ken Hitchcock and Kevin Constantine.

"One thing I can do is empathize with the guys, what they go through on a daily basis. I didn't play in the NHL for too-terribly long but I can also understand their mindset. Good days. Bad days.

"You've got communicate with your players, be open with them. I take pride in just helping them along. If you can help them improve individually, you help the team."

Gulutzan had never met Jerrard when the Dallas Stars signed him up as top man for their AHL affiliate back in 2009.

"They said: This is your assistant coach. He's been with us five or six years. A quality, quality guy in our organization. As a young head coach, this guy's going to help you,'' recalls Gulutzan now.

"Of course, initially you're apprehensive.

"But at the end of the day, he helped me tremendously. He's become a best friend of mine."

No different than the delicate dynamics within a locker-room, the interaction, the degree of unity, inside the coaching bunker is also imperative to collective success.

"There has to be cohesiveness,'' stresses Gulutzan. "There has to be trust. And a little bit of conflict, too. All that stuff helps make you better."

Helping make the Flames better is Paul Jerrard's job description.

Now 52, the experiences of three decades spent in the pro game are a rich resources to draw from.

Chief among them a certain Friday the 13th, June 1997 at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. Way back when.

"A collective will,'' says Jerrard, "gives a team power. If you have a whole bunch of guys on the same wavelength, you can achieve more than you imagine.

"When we won the Calder Cup that year, we weren't the best team in the league by any means. We were a bunch of guys who wanted to make a mark in pro hockey.

"We banded together for a common goal.

"When you do that, you can accomplish great things together.

"That's what we're trying to do here."

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