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Canucks hire Desjardins as coach

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- When Willie Desjardins asked his wife to marry him, it was with the promise he would be an NHL head coach.

He finally made good on that pledge Monday, when the Vancouver Canucks introduced the 57-year-old to replace John Tortorella.

"I was trying to talk her into marrying me and I said, 'Rhonda, I am going to be an NHL coach,'" Desjardins said. "I just didn't tell her it was going to take 25 years, so I fooled her a little bit."

Desjardins admitted there were times during nearly three decades of coaching that he wondered if he'd be able to keep the promise.

"Yeah, for sure there had to be doubts. Once you pass 40, you probably wonder if your chance is going to come," he said. "I have been looking forward to this opportunity for a long time."

The Canucks are hoping the wait was worth it for them too, especially after a disastrous first season under Tortorella that ended with the team missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Tortorella was fired on May 1.

Desjardins has won at every level since leaving the Saskatchewan farm he still owns to start coaching at the University of Calgary in 1985, including a Calder Cup with the Texas Stars, the Dallas Stars' American Hockey League affiliate, last week. His only NHL experience prior to accepting the Vancouver job was two years as an associate coach with Dallas in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

"I think I had to go to Dallas to prove I could work with NHL players," said Desjardins, who left to coach the Stars' farm team the past two seasons, going 91-40-21, winning Coach of the Year honors in 2013 and a championship this season. "I just wanted to be a head coach. I just think you want to win and so you want to have some control over that and maybe you get a little bit more being head coach."

Now, Desjardins gets the chance to do it for the first time in the NHL. He joins a management group led by ex-player Trevor Linden, who was out of hockey six seasons before taking the job as Canucks president in the final weeks of the season, and first-time general manager Jim Benning, who was hired a month ago after spending the previous eight seasons as an assistant GM with the Boston Bruins.

Linden said he isn't worried about a lack of experience.

"Whether it's at the American Hockey League level, the Western Hockey League level or the NHL level, players are players and they want to win and I think Willie has the ability to connect with people," Linden said. "When it comes down to it, X's and O's are just marks on a chalk board, but when you connect with players and get them to play and play hard or you, that's Willie's strength."

Desjardins has a four-year contract with the Canucks, according to Linden, but the coach said term and money were not the reason he chose Vancouver over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Without getting into specifics about the Penguins job, Desjardins hinted it involved being able to choose his assistants, something he will do with Linden and Benning.

"A little bit that way," Desjardins said. "It just couldn't quite work out and it wasn't their fault. They had certain things they had to do – they had to do it, and I understand why – and there are certain things I needed to be successful, so it wasn't going to work. You get one chance and you want to try to give yourself the best chance."

After talking all week on the phone, in-person meetings in Vancouver over the weekend confirmed to Desjardins it was the right choice.

"Sidney Crosby is a heck of a player obviously, but I looked at what was here, I looked at the two guys leading this, I looked at the quality of the players, their personality, Canadian market, Vancouver fans … it was the right choice to come here," Desjardins said.

For Desjardins, who also coached Canada to a silver medal at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship, that includes a relationship with Linden from his nine seasons coaching the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL. Linden, who played his junior hockey in Medicine Hat before being drafted by the Canucks in 1988, met Desjardins and spoke to his Tigers before they played in the 2004 Memorial Cup.

That first meeting left an impression on both men, but Linden had already heard a lot from his mom.

"My mother is a big fan and a big Medicine Hat Tigers supporter and our scout in the Western Hockey League, or one of them," Linden said with a laugh. "So we talk about hockey a lot and she kept talking about how much she loved watching the Tigers play in those years."

The hope is Desjardins will bring that same level of excitement back to a Canucks team that struggled to score in its only seasons under Tortorella's collapsing, shot-blocking mandate.

"His teams play fast," Benning said. "They play an up-tempo, hard-skating type of game, with that relentless attitude we want."

Desjardins didn't disagree with any of those assessments of his preferred playing style, but cautioned the personnel would dictate some of the system specifics. Linden expected his new coach to fly to Sweden in the coming weeks to meet with key players like Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, who embraced Tortorella's philosophy of playing his top players more, but wilted offensively as the season wore on.

After questions about whether Tortorella's set-in-stone style fit an aging but skilled core in Vancouver, Desjardins sold the Canucks on fitting his system to fit the players.

"It's how you deal with players, how you interact with players, how you work with them, how you create an environment where they want to be successful," Linden said. "Willie talks about respecting his players. I learned that lesson a long time ago from Pat Quinn. Willie's strength is he gets his players to buy in and he creates an environment where they want to play for him, and that's a real strength."

After a long wait, Desjardins finally gets to see how it works in the NHL.

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