Some people believe there is strength in numbers, but Drake Berehowsky relies on statistics for something else.
“Numbers don’t lie to me,” Berehowsky, a former NHL star defenceman who is in his first season as coach of the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, said in an interview this week.
“They tell the truth.”
And right now, like the truth sometimes, the Hurricanes’ numbers in the standings hurt. They’re last overall in the 22-team league with a 6-27-2-3 record.
But three of their six wins, along with a shootout loss, have occurred in the past 10 games. The ‘Canes headed into the Christmas break on a high note by defeating the Kootenay Ice 5-4 in a shootout in Cranbrook, B.C., on Tuesday night.
Berehowsky, 41, was drafted 10th overall by Toronto in the 1990 NHL entry draft and went on to a 16-year pro career with the Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Nashville, Vancouver and several teams in the minors and Europe. The Hurricanes are the first junior team he has guided as a head coach.
The Toronto native joined the ‘Canes last summer after one season at the helm of the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL following three seasons as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen (2009-10 to 2011-12) and two in a similar role with the Barrie Colts in the OHL (2007-08 to 2008-09).
He is trying to help the Hurricanes, who have missed the playoffs in the past four seasons and counting, re-live some of the success they enjoyed while going to the finals in 2007-08 and Eastern Conference semi-finals in 2008-09.
Lethbridge also had success in 1996-97, winning its first and only WHL title, and ranked as a perennial contender, going to the finals twice, during three seasons in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Despite the Hurricanes’ struggles, Berehowsky is thoroughly enjoying his new experience in the Southern Alberta city.
“A community like this is where junior hockey should be,” he said.
With his extensive NHL experience that included two stints in Toronto and Pittsburgh, Berehowsky provides a high profile to a Lethbridge club that is the No. 1 team in its market, but draws crowds of less than 3,000 to most home games. He does not view himself as a big fish in a small pond though.
“I think I’m just a normal guy,” he said. “We’re just a normal family, and we love where we are and what we do.”
When he isn’t busy guiding players, Berehowsky is busy helping his wife Lori look after their six children — three boys and three girls — aged nine and under.
“You’ve got to be organized,” he said. “I think I’m a pretty organized guy. I pay attention to the details.”
Berehowsky had no shortage of details to consider in his former post with Orlando, where he compiled a 28-37-0-7 record in the club’s first ECHL season.
“I was everything,” he said. “The (general manager) and the coach. Being a GM was a great learning curve. It gave me a chance to do things that I wouldn’t normally get to do.”
Although Berehowsky had the opportunity to stay with Orlando, he opted to leave because of a desire to join a strong league like the WHL and focus on coaching with a team that he felt was on the way up.
With the aid of a mobile “abstract learning” application that he is developing with assistance from Ryerson University in Toronto, Berehowsky tracks such stats as defensive and offensive zone time, puck control and where goals are scored from. The analytics, he said, confirm that the Hurricanes are slowly getting better as they attempt to climb “a mountain” by taking “baby steps” first.
“You see the improvement every day and every game,” said Berehowsky.
But he relies on more than just numbers in his quest to help the Hurricanes become a contender. He also uses video extensively and bills himself as a communicator, someone from whom his charges can seek advice “about anything” on or off the ice.
Berehowsky also strives to be a fair-but-firm coach while emphasizing hard work and physical play.
“We’re not a fancy team,” he said. “We’re a meat-and-potatoes team, and those are the teams that, I think, have success.”
The Hurricanes are trying to succeed with a seemingly unlikely partnership. Berehowsky was often front and centre in an injury-plagued career, while first-year general manager Brad Robson, a former NHL scout, spent most of his time in hockey working behind the scenes.
In addition to pursuing new talent for Minnesota and Dallas for more than two decades, Robson chased criminals during a 31-year career with the Calgary Police Service.
“We have the same beliefs and the same morals,” said Berehowsky. “Brad’s been a great sounding board and a guy for me to lean on.”
While many coaches at the junior and pro levels often get job offers from people with whom they have worked previously, Berehowsky and Robson did not know each other before the GM began his search for a coach.
“I knew who Drake was, but we hadn’t met prior to the very first interview we had back in June-July,” said Robson, who scouted for Minnesota and Dallas for more than two decades.
Berehowsky received a three-year contract after being recommended by St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, with whom Robson had worked in Dallas, and a couple of agents.
“He’s a good leader, patient,” said Robson. “He’s a teacher. He spends a lot of time with players.”
Robson predicts the Hurricanes will become a strong team relatively soon.
“We’re building for the future and we believe we’re going to be a good hockey club next season and in the next couple years,” said Robson.
As the Hurricanes continue their improvement efforts, he and Berehowsky are not putting too much emphasis on the two most important numbers for any hockey team — wins and losses. Instead, said Robson, the coach and GM are sticking to the “process” that they are trying to teach.
How do they endure the current struggles?
“We have to be patient,” said Robson. “We have to be leaders. We have to be the hardest-working people in the organization — and the players see that.”