ANAHEIM — Dallas Eakins didn’t know if he’d get another shot at an NHL head coaching gig after his first stint with the Edmonton Oilers quickly crashed and burned.
Some tough times followed, with plenty of self-doubt and internal examination about where it had all gone so wrong, so fast.
As he stood behind the Anaheim Ducks bench on Tuesday night at Honda Center, the 52-year-old Eakins had a lot of people to thank for getting him back on his feet — and that includes several members of the team he was facing.
Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and assistant GM Craig Heisinger are all good friends and mentors who Eakins went out of the way to praise.
“I often talk to Zinger, I often talk to Chevy. I’m always in contact with Paul. It doesn’t take adversity for you to reach out to people. When things are going great, you’re still looking to get better. Those guys are all on the top of the call list,” Eakins told the Free Press following his club’s morning skate.
“Obviously a team I’ve got a lot of love for. Just not tonight.”
Eakin’s roots to Winnipeg run deep. The journeyman NHL defenceman first came to town when he played 14 games with the Jets during the 1992-92 season. One of his most memorable moments was nearly catching Teemu Selanne’s airborne glove, seconds after the Finnish Flash had just scored his 54th goal of the year to break the NHL’s goal-scoring record for rookies. Eakins returned for two more games with the Jets during the 1995-96 season, just before the team headed for the desert.
After bouncing between the big leagues and the minors, Eakins won a Turner Cup championship with the Chicago Wolves in 2000-01 while playing for Cheveldayoff, who was the team’s GM. After the International Hockey League folded the following the season, Chicago joined the AHL. The pair shared another title, this time the Calder Cup.
Eakins returned to Winnipeg to finish his professional playing career in 2003-04 as the captain of the Manitoba Moose, where Heisinger was the GM.
When Eakins turned his attention to coaching, it was Maurice who provided the first big break. Maurice, the bench boss of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies for the 2005-06 season, brought Eakins in to be an assistant. They were promoted together the following year to the Maple Leafs, spending two more seasons together before Maurice was fired, ultimately moving on to Carolina.
“Paul Maurice is just a dear, dear friend and has been a real bright light in my career,” Eakins said.
Eakins returned to the Marlies as head coach for four successful seasons, including a Calder Cup final appearance, which made him one of the top young coaching prospects in the game. Edmonton hired him prior to the 2013-14 campaign, only to send him packing the following season as part of a revolving door of coaches and management that would haunt that franchise for years. Eakins spent just 113 games behind the bench with the Oilers, with a record of 36-63-14.
“You’re not a coach until you get fired. That’s a fact. You have to go through that. And then put in all that work you got to to get back into the game,” Maurice said Tuesday.
Back to the minors he went, as Eakins tried to build his profile back up. He spent four years as head coach of the San Diego Gulls of the AHL, amassing a record of 154-95-23, which included three deep playoff runs.
When Ducks coach and ex-Jets defenceman Randy Carlyle was fired last February, with GM Bob Murray taking over for the remainder of the season, Eakins was seen as the next-coach-in-waiting. It became official during the summer.
“Really, really smart guy and disciplined and in better shape than all of us. He worked at it, right. So he came in as a journeyman hockey player who would have seen a ton of coaches. So he had a tremendous amount of influences. And then went into player development and came back into coaching, got a tour in Canada, which is not easy to do in your first job, and then went back and continued to work on his craft,” said Maurice.
“So this guy’s a worker. He’s going to watch a ton of video, he’s going to assess his job as a coach, and he’s going to continually improve what he does. He’s going to be a really good coach for a real long time.”
Anaheim got off to a 6-2-0 start, but had gone 1-4-0 heading into action Tuesday night. Eakins sees a lot of similarities between a young, talented Jets team with a few core pieces and his own squad, in which a number of players he’s coached in the AHL are stepping into a lineup that includes the likes of veteran Ryan Getzlaf.
“The Jets have done a hell of a job at that. They’re obviously a very, very good team now, and a dangerous one. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here. We’ve got five or six basically first-year players in our lineup and we’re trying to transition them in and win hockey games at the same time,” said Eakins.
Cam Fowler, who is now in his 10th season patrolling the blue line with the Ducks, said the early returns have been impressive.
“If you spend any time around Dallas, you know the passion and the energy that he brings to the game. I never saw him as a player, but I imagine he had that same kind of fiery intensity on the ice as he does as a coach,” Fowler said Tuesday.
Fowler said Eakins has been open with the team about his Edmonton experience, which may prove to be a valuable stepping stone on the way to achieving greater things.
“If you talk to him about it, I think he’d be the first to say that Edmonton was a learning experience for him. I think he feels there was some things that went on there that weren’t true to his character and what he wanted to do as a coach,” said Fowler.
“Anyone who played in San Diego for him absolutely raved about him and loved playing for him. So I think he made some changes and he’s brought that into the NHL now. It’s early, of course, but he’s proven that he’s there for us, he’ll go to bat for us and he’s as well prepared as anybody. I think it was a great learning experience, for sure.”
The Ducks, a longtime NHL heavyweight, had grown older and slower in recent years and were due for a change. That included replacing Carlyle, while also bidding goodbye to veteran players such as Corey Perry.
Eakins, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, plenty to prove and a connection to many of the young Ducks players, seems to be the perfect fit.
“We are a team that plays with energy and with pace. We lacked a little bit of that last year. I think Dallas expects us to be aggressive and we always want to air on the side of aggression and I think you’re seeing that in the way we play,” said Fowler.
“We are a team that’s transitioning into a lot of younger players. And Dallas has already formed a relationship with these guys, he knows what they can do, their tendencies. When you already have that, and you just have to learn a bit with some of the older guys, the veterans, I think it makes the transition for coaches and players easier.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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