In 1995, or the first time Don Hay stepped behind the bench for Canada’s world junior team, all the obligatory profiles focused on his off-ice occupation, as a member of the Kamloops, B.C., fire department.
It was just before the first NHL lockout was about to end and Hay was this pleasing anachronism, the 40-year-old fireman, who was still officially on a leave of absence so that he could coach the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers.
That year, Hay quietly introduced a telling and compelling team-building exercise in the days leading up the tournament. He asked every player on the Canadian roster to reflect upon someone in their lives who had profoundly influenced their development and then had them bring photos of that person to the tournament so they could be posted on the dressing room wall.
The players would walk past the photo gallery whenever they ventured onto the ice; and periodically, during the tournament, they was asked – via the pictures on the wall – to explain their back story.
Some players revealed they were playing for their parents; others for their grandparents; others still for a recently deceased relative. Hay wanted to keep the whole process internal, and succeeded for awhile, but the news of how some players were in tears when they stood up and spoke eventually leaked out via TSN.
In the end, Canada rolled to a 7-0 record in 1995, the first time any team had gone undefeated in the tournament, and many believe it was because of how well Hay – the very definition of the expression ‘salt of the earth’ – brought together that disparate group of players.
“I didn’t know about that particular story,” said Brendan Gallagher, who plays for Hay with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, “but in Vancouver, we do something similar. Everybody brings in a picture of their family and we put it on the board and throughout the year, four guys at a time will talk about their families and you get to know everyone – little things about why you play for them and what makes them special. It kinda brings it together for me.”
According to Hay, the scope and the growth of the world junior tournament over time makes it more important now to lessen the pressure on his team, however that may be done.
“If you put the burden of playing for 33 million people on your shoulders, that’s a pretty big burden,” explained Hay, as Canada prepared for Monday’s tournament opener against Finland. “But if you can focus on, ‘I want to do it for my dad or my grandfather because of what they did for me in my development,’ I just think it narrows the focus – and maybe takes a little bit of that pressure off. It can get overwhelming for these guys; for anybody.
“You look at the [2010 men’s]Olympic team. They’re grown men – and it gets overwhelming for them. So you do anything you can do to help them deal with the pressure that’s going to be coming – because the pressure builds and builds. But I think they can handle it. I don’t want to say they’re more mature, but they’ve been exposed to more things in 2011 than they were in 1995.
“They’re pretty worldly now. They just get taught so much at a young age.”
Much has changed for Hay over the years as well. He led the Blazers to consecutive Memorial Cup championships and sent, among others, Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan and Darcy Tucker to the NHL. In 1996-97, he was hired to coach the transplanted Winnipeg Jets during their first year in Phoenix, a team that included Doan on its roster. But after losing in the seventh game of the opening round, he was replaced by Jim Schoenfeld.
From there, he was an Anaheim Ducks’ assistant on Pierre Pagé’s staff and, eventually, rejoined the WHL before a second stint in the NHL, where he spent 68 games coaching the Flames, a team that included Iginla. At the 1999 Memorial Cup in Ottawa, Hay was named the WHL’s best all-time coach and he has been running the Giants since 2005.
As worldly as today’s teenagers seem, Hay says they are fundamentally still the same, with one foot in childhood, and one foot in adulthood.
“It’s funny,” he said. “You deal with these guys one-on-one and you feel they’re mature and almost adult-like. Then all of a sudden, you catch them reading a comic book or playing a joke on someone. That’s what teenagers do. That’s why guys like [NHLers]Devante Smith-Pelly and [Brett]Connolly will really enjoy their time here – because they’re back with their own age group and they can be comfortable around them.”
Canada has won a medal in 13 consecutive tournaments and has played in the gold-medal game for 10 years in a row. Last year, it led Russia 3-0 after two periods, at which point Hay did what he figured most other Canadians perched in front of their television sets did as well.
“I shut it off after two and went and did something else,” Hay said.
By the time he came back, Russia had scored five unanswered goals and won the tournament. Canada’s players were devastated by the result. Hay, watching from the other side of Canada, was too.
“It’s too bad because you really feel for the kids and what they were going through and what they had to deal with. Sometimes, you wonder if a young player needs to face that type of adversity at such a young age. But that’s sport. That’s sport. That’s why we love sports – because it can go in a lot of different directions. That’s what makes it so exciting.”
Hay remembered that in 1995, Canada cruised to victory in some of its early games, and couldn’t believe the reaction.
“We beat teams and we got criticized for beating teams by too much – or having too much enthusiasm,” Hay said. “But that’s being a teenager.
“The game has changed, but the biggest thing that’s changed is, it’s more important now to more countries. At one time, it was first and foremost to Canadians, but maybe not as important to other countries.
“Now, there are other countries that take a lot of pride in winning the world juniors and coming with real competitive team.”
Canada is the top seed in the ultra-competitive B Group, which also includes the United States, the Czech Republic, Finland and Denmark. One of the first four, all traditional hockey powers, will not qualify for the medal round in the tournament’s second week. It is why Hay wants to make sure everybody understands that in a tournament featuring a single-elimination playoff game, anything can happen.
“There’s no rule that we deserve gold every year. Other countries want it too. There are other countries that believe they play the right way. So we don’t have a lock on gold medals. We want to win gold medals, but we don’t have a lock on them.”
According to Gallagher, they have the right man for the job to do that, calling Hay “the most competitive coach” he’s ever played for and noting that even in WHL exhibition games, Hay is not afraid to let you know if you have a bad period.
“Whenever your coach is that competitive behind that bench, you sense that as players, and it makes you want to win just as bad,” said Gallagher, noting too: “He does a good job of recognizing how to connect with his players and how to get the best out of them.”
And so, if today’s profiles of Hay focus on the successful junior coach and not so much the (now former) fireman, well that’s okay with him. Time changes everything.
“I go by there sometimes,” said Hay, talking about the fire station, “but they’re all changed. All the guys I worked with are retired now.”
And besides, said a smiling Hay of his current gig: “The pay is better – and the lifestyle is pretty good too.”