Panther assistant coach Jim Hulton remembers it as a “unique experience.”
And a “disaster.”
Ten years after coaching the expansion Mississauga IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League, Hulton can smile a bit and pull the positives from the experience. He can also attest to the old adage that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
Hulton, hired by the Panthers over the summer, was coaching the Junior A Kingston Voyageurs in 1998 – had led them to an 18-6-1 record through 25 games – when he was asked to take over the expansion IceDogs, who had gotten off to a 1-21-1 start.
“I was only 28 and it was my first head coaching opportunity (in major hockey),” Hulton said. “I think being a little naïve was a good thing. It was a bit of a defensive mechanism for what was really happening.”
And what happened was the IceDogs, like any expansion team, struggled mightily. Hulton had left a first-place team for a first-year team that he coaxed to a 3-40-2 record.
“Record wise it was a disaster,” Hulton recalled. “But it stressed to me the importance of structure and preparation. When you’re behind the eight-ball, and we were a lot of nights in terms of talent, size and a lot of other areas, we needed to be the most prepared and structured team going.
“And the other thing was if we started to look at our season as a whole, we would have packed it in. Guys would have been just far too depressed. So we had to reach into our bag and make it fresh, make it enjoyable for guys to come to the rink. Maybe that’s a good lesson and the one thing that stands out. It still has to be fun. It’s difficult when you win only four games. So it was an ongoing battle, a day-to-day struggle, to keep things fresh and keep them going. At times like that you need to keep the big picture in mind.”
Hulton was let go 1 ½ years after taking over the IceDogs and he was only 30. But Hulton’s hard work and attitude wasn’t lost on the rest of hockey. The following year he became head coach at Belleville (OHL) and led the Bulls to the East Division title. Two years later, he took control of Kingston and led them to a second-place finish in the East. Stops at the Royal Military College and Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors led to a call from the Panthers.
Panther coach Peter DeBoer remembers Hulton’s season with the IceDogs and says, “They don’t get much tougher that that.”
“I remember because I coached against Jim that year (at Kitchener),” he added. “I remember how he handled adversity and that situation and always handled it with class. It told a lot about his character. Players, coaches who have adversity like that reveal character, and I think Jimmy did an outstanding job.”
Despite the tough times he endured with the IceDogs, Hulton focused on teaching and educated his players on fighting through adversity and working hard. He intends to bring that focus to the Panthers.
“The neat thing is you realize about two drills in, ‘You know what? It’s hockey. It’s the same,’ ” he said. “The only thing is the paychecks here are a heck of a lot bigger than the junior kids. But in terms of on ice, they still want structure. One thing that binds us all together is hockey. No matter what we did at the other level, it’s still the same instruction here.”
Hulton said he’s acquired his intensity and fire from his father, a farmer and carpenter who coached at the grassroots level in Kingston, Ontario. Hulton, who played in Kitchener, believes teams must have an identity but players have to be allowed to show their personalities.
And as far as keeping things fresh over an 82-game schedule?
“The best thing is to be predictably unpredictable,” he said. “So the minute the guys think they’re coming in and it’s going to be tough, maybe it’s a down-to-earth practice, maybe you keep it light.”
It’s a lesson Hulton learned well in Mississauga.