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Desjardins valuable addition to coaching staff

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It might have seemed like a minor move, but when the Dallas Stars hired Willie Desjardins to join the organization as an assistant coach back in July, the club added a valuable, knowledgeable hockey man to the staff.

So far, Desjardins has fit in very smoothly with head coach Marc Crawford and the other assistants, Charlie Huddy and Stu Barnes, and has already made a significant impact on the staff.

photo courtesy Hockey Canada
“It’s going really good,” said Desjardins, 53, who spent the previous eight years coaching junior hockey in Canada. “We have such quality people on the staff. They really made me feel at home. They’re all really good hockey men and they know things at a level that I’m learning, so it’s been real good for me, and I really enjoy it.”

Crawford was thrilled to hire one of junior hockey’s most promising executives. After taking over a Medicine Hat club that had missed the WHL playoffs five straight years, Desjardins re-established the Tigers as a junior powerhouse in his eight years as coach, while also serving as General Manager for the last five. His teams never missed the post-season and won WHL championships in 2004 and 2007, even reaching the Memorial Cup Final in ‘07. He also led Team Canada to a silver medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships and acted as an assistant coach on Canada’s 2009 gold medal squad.

“First of all, Willie’s a career coach,” Crawford said. “And the second thing I will say is that he’s been a head coach for so long, that with that understanding of what a head coach goes through and the sorts of decisions that a head coach has to make, he helps me because of his first-hand knowledge of all of the elements that go into those decisions.”

“He brings a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience coaching,” added Barnes, now in his third season on the staff since retiring from the Stars as a player in 2008. “I think he’s got great ideas about structure and presentation for the players. I think he’s added a new dimension to the staff. He’s been great. He’s very eager and very excited about being a part of it.”

Crawford was also impressed with how quickly Desjardins fit in and became an integral component of the group.

“Charlie and Stu are excellent and I think he helps them because he sparks conversation,” Crawford said of his new assistant. “I think he’s very creative in his thinking and he’s bringing new ideas to us and in a lot of ways, very simple ideas, because he’s coached at the major junior level, where simplicity is the order of the day. And I think the chemistry of our group has been quite remarkable in a very short time. I give Willie a lot of credit for that.”

Desjardins reported while everyone on the staff has input in all aspects, his specific areas of influence include working closely with Huddy on the club’s defensive zone coverage and penalty killing.

“I have a big range, like everybody has different things they’re responsible for,” Desjardins revealed. “I’ve been helping out a little bit on the penalty kill and in the D-zone, but Charlie has a lot on that, but I’m involved in those areas probably more than any other area.”

As much as he enjoyed the highly successful run he helped engineer in Medicine Hat, Desjardins jumped at the chance to join the Stars.

“The NHL is the elite league, and I think whenever you’re in something, you always want to find out where you’re at among the elite,” said Desjardins, who compiled an impressive 333-182-61 regular season record and a 65-43 playoff mark while in Medicine Hat. “I wanted to get there as a player and I didn’t get there, so it’s something I’ve always want to do. The thing is, I’ve always enjoyed where I’m at. So when I was in Medicine Hat, I just really enjoyed it. It wasn’t that I wanted to get out of Medicine Hat, I didn’t.  I was totally comfortable in Medicine Hat, I was 100 percent fine there, but when the opportunity comes to go to the NHL, you just have to look at that, because it doesn’t come along very often.”

Although he had no real prior connection to Crawford, the two do have a common friend in Mike Johnston, who served as Crawford’s assistant coach for six years in Vancouver and for two as his associate coach in Los Angeles.

“I’d talked to Marc over the years a couple of times,” noted Desjardins, a native of Climax, Saskatchewan. “Mike Johnston’s a good friend of mine and he’s a good friend of Marc’s and that’s probably where the contact came from. I think at this level, you have to have a pretty good feel for somebody if you’re going to bring them in.  I think he watched the program we had (at Medicine Hat) a little bit and liked some of the things he saw in our teams, but probably the trust would come out of Mike, that hopefully I’d be a good guy to work with.” 

Going from coaching unpolished teenagers to more experienced and more mature grown men has required Desjardins to slightly alter his approach, but not much.

“I think the biggest adjustment is understanding how they’re such professionals and things that would be a concern in junior aren’t a concern in the NHL, just because they take care of themselves,” Desjardins said. “And in the way they see the game, too. In juniors sometimes, I’d tell guys (about a problem) and they wouldn’t know or they wouldn’t catch on, so I’d have to tell them again. Here, you don’t have to do that. They know once you’ve said something, they pick it up and lots of times, they pick it up before you say it. It’s just a different level. It’s something you have to get used to, because the last thing you want as a coach is to have something and not say it, and get scored on. And yet at the same time, here you only have to mention it once.”

There’s one aspect of his former job that Desjardins doesn’t miss at all. Dropping the GM duties he held in Medicine Hat means he doesn’t have to deal with any administration duties or player personnel decisions, he can just focus on coaching.

“The one thing I really enjoy being here, I get to watch a lot more video,” Desjardins said. “My time’s freed up to just do hockey stuff and spend it looking at teams coming in and what we’re doing, and that’s really nice to be able to do that. I think it hurts you at the junior level when you have to do both.”

As he settles in to his new home in the Metroplex, Desjardins is eager to help the Stars return to the playoffs after failing to qualify the past two years and try to re-ignite the local fans’ passion for a winner.
“I really like Dallas,” he said. “As a city, I think it’s exciting and have a good hockey tradition and some real good fans and some real loyal fans. I think it’s our job to win some games, be an exciting team, and the fans will come back. That’s what we’re striving to do - everybody wants it to be like it was (during the club’s Stanley Cup-contending era of 1998-2003), and I think the ingredients are there. It takes a little time, you can’t go from first base to home base without going through some steps, and I think we’ve got to grow with those steps. But I think it’s a great time and I really enjoy the organization. I’m really excited to be here and I think it’s a great opportunity.”

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