Talk to people about Texas Stars head coach Willie Desjardins and they’ll tell you how much he loves to win. Look at Desjardins’ résumé and you’ll see how much he has won in his coaching career. And he’s won while developing players, which made him a perfect fit when the Dallas Stars were looking for someone to take the helm of their American Hockey League affiliate.
It’s a key time for Dallas, which is putting a big emphasis on drafting and developing players, and this season is a big one as the NHL club has a strong group of promising prospects embarking on their professional careers with the Texas Stars.
“I think Willie is born to do this,” said Dallas Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “He’s good with kids; he’ll be firm with them. Willie was our first choice to go in there this summer and he was excited about it, and he’s ready to go.”
Desjardins’ ability to work with young players and his desire to win were evident in the first few days of Texas Stars training camp, which opened over the weekend at Cedar Park Center. There were up-tempo practices, hard work and some teaching.
“I think his strong suit in this situation is how positive he is,” said Texas forward Toby Petersen. “He’s definitely a ‘glass half-full’ kind of guy. He’s optimistic and with a team in the AHL, where we are trying to develop players, he understands that the most important part of development and the best thing you can do is learn how to win. That’s his focus here, plain and simple, he just wants to win. Everything we do – everything he draws up on the board, everything we do in meetings and what we do as a team – all of it is for the purpose of finding ways to win games.”
And for Desjardins, the best way to develop players is to teach them how to win and be part of a team that wins.
“The bottom line is you play to win,” Desjardins said. “We build our team around good habits and being good teammates. That’s the same for everybody. That doesn’t change if you are a veteran or if you are a new player.”
Desjardins, 55, is ready to get back to head coaching after two seasons as associate coach in Dallas, spending one season with Marc Crawford and then working with current Dallas head coach Glen Gulutzan last season.
“I like being a head coach,” Desjardins said. “I think the NHL is great. Glen was great to work with and he did a real good job, but the opportunity to be a head coach is always appealing to me. This is really a great organization and Austin is a great place and this is a great franchise. It’s a good chance for me.”
Desjardins has made the most of his coaching chances. He won two Western Hockey League championships with the Medicine Hat Tigers, and was named WHL Coach of the Year in 2005-06. He won a silver medal as head coach of Team Canada at the 2010 World Junior Championship and a gold medal as an assistant coach at the 2009 World Juniors. He won two Canada West Championships at the University of Calgary. He won the Japan League title as head coach. Throw in the two years of NHL experience and it’s an impressive résumé.
“That kind of experience is essential,” said Texas GM Scott White. “He’s a passionate guy. He loves the game and he loves to coach.”
“He loves to win. He’s very enthusiastic,” said Texas assistant coach Doug Lidster, who was an assistant coach with Desjardins in Medicine Hat. “He’ll do whatever it takes. He’ll do it or he’ll ask his players to do it in order to win. He’s an excellent head coach. He’s won at every level he’s coached. He just knows how to work the players. He knows the X’s and O’s and he knows managing the personalities of the players is a very important part of the job.”
Desjardins is taking over the job from Jeff Pyle, who was fired last April after Texas finished last in the AHL’s Western Conference and next to last in the league overall. Desjardins will try to get Texas back on track, blending together a group of young Dallas prospects and a solid group of veteran players. He comes in with an advantage, knowing many of the players from his two years in the Dallas organization and he knows others from his extensive coaching time in juniors.
“It helps a lot. I’ve seen a lot of guys through the years in some way,” he said. “It’s good to know them, but you see them in a different light now. Instead of just trying to make the team now, they are key guys.”
And he knows what Gulutzan is doing in Dallas, and that should help make what the Stars are doing in the AHL look a lot like what the Stars are doing in the NHL.
“I think it will be really similar in lots of ways, but there will be different emphasis on different parts of the game,” Desjardins said. “I think you make that emphasis depending on what kind of a team you have. He has a certain type of team up there and I have a certain type of team here. Lots of things are the same, but what we emphasize might be different.”
Based on how the team opened camp there will be an emphasis on work and pace, and those are staples of Willie Desjardins teams.
“I like to be a hardworking team,” Desjardins said. “I want to be a transition team, a team that will attack and a team that is there every night.”
And, based on Desjardins’ track record, it should be a team that wins.