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PRINCIPE: Similar Tale of Two Coaches

by Gene Principe / Edmonton Oilers
Photo by Getty Images

On Thursday night, Edmonton will kick off a six-game homestand. The half-dozen games they have at Rexall Place from February 11-23 will equal the same amount they had from December 29-January 10. This lineup of action in the Alberta capital ties a season high of hockey at the arena situated on Wayne Gretzky Drive. It involves three teams from the Central Division (Winnipeg, Minnesota, Colorado) one from the Pacific (Anaheim) and two from the other conference (Ottawa and Toronto). With 14 wins at home this season, which is only one away from the 15 they had all of last season, this should prove to be an entertaining two weeks.

The game I'm looking forward to the most happens first. Toronto comes to town, which brings with it a unique brand of excitement, entertainment and circus-like atmosphere. There's always something going on when the Maple Leafs wander out West. This year is no different with the mega move they made with Ottawa that involved their Edmonton-born captain Dion Phaneuf. There was also the Nazem Kadri throat slash gesture directed at the captain from Calgary. I'm sure one or two or 32 people will want to talk to Connor McDavid about the childhood team he grew up watching and will play against for the first time. However, I’m interested to see the clash of the coaches on the respective benches.

It will be the second meeting this season of two men with career paths that have crossed over and led them to the task of rejuvenating a pair of Canadian franchises. The journey for both began in the spring when Mike Babcock and Todd McLellan departed from their long-time teams. One said, “so long” to Detroit, while the other waved goodbye to San Jose.

The first to land was Babcock in Toronto. Not long after, it was McLellan in Edmonton. So began the task of two Saskatchewan-born coaches to take their success from previous stops and bring it to their most recent change of address.

They grew up in the same province, but because of their handful of years difference in age Mike Babcock and Todd McLellan didn't play hockey against each other. That didn't mean they didn't know who the other was. Players of some success on the ice but both eventually better suited to be off it. Each left home to find his way in the coaching ranks. After criss-crossing leagues, they finally ended up in the same place— Detroit.

Mike Babcock got the head coaching job and he hired Todd McLellan to be his assistant. Todd was working in Minnesota's organization as their AHL coach in Houston. He won a Calder Cup and now Babcock wanted him to help Detroit win a Stanley Cup. They did so in 2008.

I remember Todd talking at the start of the season about the transition that took place for him when he went to the ‘Wings. From head coach to assistant coach, he wasn't the big boss anymore. He had to stand back while Mike took over the team. They worked well together, so well that McLellan branched out on his own for the job in San Jose. Over the years they have met many times, like they will Thursday night. Sometimes the teacher and sometimes the pupil has come out on top. Now they find themselves side-by-side in the standings and in the race to be the best.

Two dedicated, successful coaches who won't stop working until they find the winning ways they cultivated as coaches on other teams. I'm sure they'll have a word with each other and share a laugh or two. It's been a tough season for both but they are too proud as people and too good as coaches not to lead their clubs back to where they once were.

- Gene Principe
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