It’s been a long road.
Even if, in some ways, it is just now beginning anew.
Dallas Eakins’s journey to being an NHL coach started way back at age 12, when he signed up for Roger Neilson’s hockey school in his adopted hometown of Peterborough, Ont.
Neilson had just been fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs after his first two years as an NHL coach, and he made quite an impression on the youngster who was born in Dade City, Fla., and was introduced to hockey later than many Canadian kids.
But that camp was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, with Neilson becoming like a second father to Eakins, who ended up making the local OHL club, the Peterborough Petes – Neilson’s long-time former team – as a depth defenceman five years later.
After three seasons, he was their captain.
So when he was introduced as the Edmonton Oilers 12th head coach on Monday afternoon, Eakins took time right away to credit Neilson, who died of bone cancer in 2003 less than a year after he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“He told me on many occasion that my mark in the NHL would be made as a coach,” Eakins joked at one point, “because I wasn’t a very good player.”
Ultimately, Eakins only played 125 games in the NHL, but he was on a big league roster much closer to 400, spending those hundreds of other games as an extra defenceman up in the press box and intently watching on.
All along, he was often thinking of his friend Roger and eventually becoming a coach, taking notes while watching games and working on that next step, whenever it would come.
“I played in about 800 different cities,” Eakins said. “And a lot of times I was a healthy scratch. I wasn’t just sitting upstairs eating popcorn.”
Eakins retired from playing in 2004 and, at 38, was hired to be a Toronto Marlies assistant coach a year later, the start of an eight-year tenure in Toronto that included two years as a Leafs assistant coach under Paul Maurice – who Eakins also credited as a key mentor on Monday – and one in an executive role as the director of player development.
Being a head coach, however, was what he always believed was the best fit.
One thing Eakins’s curious, winding road through the minors as a player in 10 different AHL or IHL cities gave him is a commitment to work ethic and fitness, something he has vowed to bring to the Oilers.
That drive was part of what won Oilers GM Craig MacTavish over, too, as he was so impressed with those Marlies teams when he coached against them in the AHL.
“He was getting players to do things that as a coach I knew were very difficult to get players to do,” MacTavish said. “Those things are unusual. When players are that committed from the drop of the puck.”
“We’re going to be committed to character,” Eakins said of his philosophy. “We’re going to be committed to a high fitness level. We’re going to be committed to the details of tactical hockey. But foremost, the No. 1 thing we’re going to be committed to is competition. This team is going to compete.”
Eakins’s success with the Marlies wasn’t exactly immediate – they missed the postseason the first two years – and there’s likely going to be a transition period after eight years in the Leafs organization.
He admitted on Monday he isn’t familiar with Oilers assistant coaches Steve Smith and Kelly Buchberger, or any of the other staff, but added that he was extremely comfortable with MacTavish and company after a lengthy interview process in Toronto that began with their search for an associate coach a little more than a week ago.
As for his mantra coming into a city that hasn’t witnessed a playoff game since 2006, Eakins insisted a priority would be placed on winning above all else.
His job isn’t purely a developmental one anymore.
“This isn’t about winning one game or one season,” he said. “This about putting a foundation in place that we bring this organization back and that they’re in the mix to win every year. That’s what we want here.
“It’s definitely a team that has potential to do some special things.”
So after years of graduating players to the NHL and using every motivational tool he could to convince them to work as hard as possible to get to The Show, it’s now Eakins making the jump, one that comes with some job security – in the form of a four-year deal – but high expectations.
The runner-up for the Leafs job when it became available in March of 2012, Eakins signed a three-year deal with the Marlies last season that had out clauses for NHL jobs each off-season.
Few in the organization expected him to fulfil the length of that deal.
“I think as a coach you’re no different than a player,” Eakins said of dreaming of standing behind an NHL bench. “You start coaching, and not that you’re hoping every day that you’re called up, but [you think about] the long term, residual effect if you can do your job well, that one day you might get a chance.
“It’s a proud day because I’ve worked hard at this. I think it’s something that’s come naturally. I knew that Roger was right that coaching was in my blood. And maybe I should have started with it much earlier.”