Photo Courtesy: Steve Conner (www.steveconnerphotography.com)
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
(Boise, ID) - Back in the summer of 2010, the Idaho Steelheads front office had to answer a lot of questions – from fans, sponsors, and media – about why its reigning ECHL Coach of the Year would leave the team to take a job in the Western Hockey League.
Not just any job, mind you. The Edmonton Oil Kings job. A major-junior team in an NHL town that had won just 16 of 72 games during the 2009-10 season, skidding home with the second-worst record in the WHL.
But that’s just what Derek Laxdal did. This spring, he showed a lot of people why.
The Oil Kings finished off an impressive WHL playoff run with a hard-fought, seven-game WHL championship series victory over the Portland Winterhawks. While all pro leagues wrap up with the league championship, Laxdal still has work to do.
“If you think about it, the Memorial Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports,” Laxdal said. “You’ve got to do well in the regular season, then win your league playoffs, and then you have a whole ‘nother round to go.”
Just two seasons removed from that 16-win season, Laxdal’s Edmonton squad posted the WHL’s top record at 50-15-7, a .743 win percentage. The team then swept through the first two rounds of the WHL playoffs, beat Moose Jaw in five games in the conference finals, and then topped Portland in the wild Ed Chenowyth Cup finals.
Now, it’s off to the Memorial Cup in Shawinigan, Quebec, from May 18 through the 27. The Memorial Cup features the champions of the Western Hockey League (Edmonton), Ontario Hockey League (London), Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (St. John’s), and the host city (Shawinigan).
“When we won the Kelly Cup (2007), the championship celebration marked the end,” Laxdal continued. “Here, we let them celebrate the WHL championship, which they should celebrate, but now we have to ramp them back up for the next round.”
Laxdal’s squad in Edmonton is captained by defenseman Mark Pysyk, a first-round NHL draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres. Keegan Lowe and Travis Ewanyk were both selected in the 3rd round of the 2011 NHL Draft and Michael St. Croix went in the 4th round. Goaltender Laurent Brossoit, barely 19 years old, was a 6th-round pick last summer as well. Teammate Griffin Reinhart is projected by many to be a top-ten pick this summer.
In short, Laxdal left to work with some of the elite young hockey talent in the world.
“Derek is a smart guy and I think he saw the value of how coaching these kids, being a good teacher, could help him develop as a coach.” Oil Kings General Manager Bob Green told the Edmonton Journal.
Now, it can help him continue to build a resume. He won a Memorial Cup with Portland in 1982, played in the NHL, reached two ECHL Kelly Cup championships (’07 and ’10), being named ECHL Coach of the Year, winning the WHL championship, and now reaching the Memorial Cup as a coach.
“I’ll tell you, it’s harder than winning the Stanley Cup in the NHL,” Laxdal concluded. “You’ve got to win your league first, and then you have to go beat three more outstanding teams, at least two of which are also league champions.”
Laxdal, who still owns a home in Boise, says a trip to the Treasure Valley is in the works for this summer, but quickly added, “we still have some work to do here first, though.”
Edmonton opens the 2012 Memorial Cup Friday night against the host Shawinigan Cataractes. The Oil Kings then face St. John’s, considered by many to be the favorite in the tournament, on Monday before concluding round-robin play against London on Tuesday (May 22). Elimination play will begin on May 24.