Dallas Eakins surveyed his situation with an eight-year-old’s unvarnished clarity.
His mother had fallen in love and married a long-distance trucker named Jim Eakins from some place named Peterborough. Tired of the endless driving, Jim Eakins brought his new family North from Florida.
“You figure out pretty quick when you are a little kid with an extreme Southern drawl that you better do something to fit in,” said the new coach of the Toronto Marlies.
“I saw these kids with sticks. That’s how I got started. I picked up a stick. That winter my Dad built a rink in the back yard. I didn’t dare go skating with the other kids but I pushed the chair. I learned how to skate and it progressed from there.”
Flash forward to Tuesday, when the 43-year-old Eakins was introduced as the man who will succeed Greg Gilbert.
In the intervening years, Eakins caught up to all but the very best hockey players and spun by a legion whose talent dwarfed his own hyper-extended abilities. He played junior with the Peterborough Petes, was drafted by Washington and played 120 games for the Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes, New York Rangers, the Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and Calgary. What brought him to each new town also would eventually see him escorted out: He was faster than most in understanding the game but slower than most in his ability influence it.
His AHL resume included 609 games and 134 points and 10 cities.
Leafs general manager Brian Burke said the Marlies’ coach had to be “a leader, a parent, a disciplinarian, a teacher and a priest.”
In the hockey universe you earn those degrees not at university or the seminary but in countless buses, hotel rooms, rinks and roadhouses. If they valued miles traveled and suitcases tossed on beds as they do goals and assists, Dallas Eakins would be in the Hall of Fame.
“I know the ins and outs of the American League and the NHL,” Eakins understated. “I know what these players are going through and what they need to improve on. I have experience as an NHL assistant coach and in player development.”
Working as a Leafs’ assistant for two seasons and spending a year as a Marlies assistant means Eakins has experience in every element on the prospect’s life.
“We are going to help these young men whether it means setting up a bank account or explaining what a forecheck is or being on time,” said Eakins. “These things seem like little things but they are part of being a professional. We will look after them (the prospects), we will encourage them and we will step on them.
A vagabond, Eakins was sustained by his own kind, the well-travelled and well remembered Roger Neilson. Eakins went to his hockey camp when he was 13. The next year he jumped from player to counselor. When Neilson died in 2003, Eakins made a staggering discovery. “I thought I was Roger’s best friend in the world but there were 1,500 people who thought the same thing.”
“Roger was the biggest influence in my life. He was like a father to me. The great thing that Roger taught me, and he did it in the countless hours in his office and his house on the lake, was the work ethic that goes into coaching. This isn’t a job. It’s a way of life. I saw how hard that man worked at his passions and I appreciated it. I saw how much he cared about his players. He was a great teacher. He was patient. I hope that I can be half the coach he was.”