|Edmonton Oilers' head coach Dallas Eakins crosses the finish line at the Leadville 100 bike race with his daughter Emerson.
The climbs burned his churning legs. The descents made Edmonton Oilers coach and personal fitness fanatic Dallas Eakins squeeze his handlebars so tight he could see his knuckles turning white.
When the shotgun was fired this past Saturday to signal the start of the Leadville 100, a grueling 104-mile, out-and-back, high-altitude bike race through the rough Rocky Mountain terrain, starting and finishing in Leadville, Colo., Eakins began a journey that would test his body, his mind and his resolve.
He finished in just over 11 hours, holding his daughter Emerson's hand as she ran beside his bike for the final few feet to the finish line.
"There are so many times when you start negotiating with yourself, like, 'What am I doing? I'm just going to quit,'" Eakins told NHL.com. "But you don't quit and you continue on through it."
Eakins has pedaled in the race (he doesn't use the word compete because, "I'm just trying to survive") since 2010 and once again his near half-day journey, which starts at an altitude of 10,152 feet and takes him as high as 12,424 feet, captured everything he is about and everything he wants his new players to know about him.
"This is a total personal thing for me and I don't do it to show my players anything, but I think the thing that it does show anybody that knows me or knows my family is that with my job and my life there is a commitment to it and I'm all in," said Eakins, who was hired by the Oilers on June 10 after spending four seasons coaching the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. "That is what I'm going to ask from my players, times 10. That's the only way you can be successful. That commitment comes through in practice habits, fitness level, attention to the detail of our systems, the character of being a good teammate, supporting one another. I'm certainly going to ask them to be committed."
Eakins witnessed commitment of the inspiring kind near the end of his challenging ride Saturday. It's turned into a frozen moment in his mind.
"You've got to picture this," Eakins said. "You're in this local high school gym and there's 2,000 racers and then they have a lot of family and crew with them, so maybe there are 3,000 people in there. Every year they clear the path from the back of the gym to recognize someone in the race. Up walked from the back of the gym a [war] veteran, a young man who is a double amputee, both arms, and he was racing."
The man's name, according to Fox News, is Matt Dewitt, who lost both his hands in a grenade explosion while stationed in Iraq in 2003. He rode with hooks for hands.
"I saw him then and it touches your heart, inspires you, but when I was finishing, with about two or three miles left, I came around the corner for the last gradual climb and the veteran was there with his support guys who were riding with him and they were putting his prosthetic hand back on the bike, getting him set up," Eakins said. "I heard them say, 'Come on man, you've only got two or three miles left, you can do it.' I'm just going by and suddenly all the pain that you're in just goes away."
As Eakins pedaled on, he wondered how Dewitt possibly could have handled the terrifying descents "that bring the hair on the back of your neck up and make you feel the sense of danger in your body" with mere hooks for hands.
Then another thought entered his mind.
"How about this," Eakins said, his voice rising. "I just caught him with three miles left. It's amazing to me.
"When you're talking to someone who has done the race, there is a connection and they understand, but it's hard to put into words what that race brings to every individual."
And so Eakins will not try to use his experience in the race as a coaching tactic to motivate his players when they're hunched over and tired in training camp or trying to overcome the inevitable bouts with adversity throughout the regular season.
He doesn't think it'll be necessary. He figures his players already will know the type of coach they're getting when they arrive for training camp.
"Listen, everybody goes and looks each other up," Eakins said. "I've done my homework on our players and I'm sure they've gone about finding out who the heck this new coach is. If they can see that, hey, this [race] is what he's into, at least they know I'm all business and I'm going to be committed."
And maybe in better shape than some of them, too.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer