Willie Desjardins is a winner. Can he make the Canucks one?

He’s coached everywhere from Tokyo to Texas. His emotional intelligence and intensity is off the charts. Can it revive Vancouver?

Darryl Dyck/CP

Darryl Dyck/CP

When, last June, the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager announced to media that Willie Desjardins, the coach they were chasing, had chosen to go “in a different direction,” Jim Rutherford had the hockey world scratching its head. Pittsburgh, it was widely known, had been trying to hire Desjardins, fresh off a Calder Cup Championship with the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League. Yet, here was Rutherford announcing that the 57-year-old, who had never held an NHL head-coaching job, was turning down the opportunity to coach the perennial Stanley Cup favourites and two of the planet’s best players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Stranger news came three days later, when it emerged that Desjardins had chosen the lowly Vancouver Canucks over the Penguins.

The Canucks, who finished 28th in scoring last season and missed the playoffs for the first time in six years, are in a serious funk—their Stanley Cup hopes a fading memory. Now in Vancouver, Desjardins gets the reaction: “Crazy, right? People say, ‘How could you not want that opportunity?’ Believe me, it’s something I’ve been dreaming of my whole life,” he told Maclean’s. “But Vancouver seemed like the right fit. Right or wrong, that’s what I felt.”

In a way, Desjardins, a native of Saskatchewan who spent eight years coaching in junior hockey with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, feels he is coming home. The Canucks’ new president, Trevor Linden, a Medicine Hat native, led the hometown Tigers to back-to-back Memorial Cups before Desjardins’s tenure there. And the rookie benchman’s two new assistants, Doug Lidster and Perry Pearn, also cut their coaching teeth in the Hat. “You get one shot at this,” Desjardins explains. “You want to try to give yourself the best chance you can.” That means surrounding yourself with allies, to watch your back when the going gets tough. And tough it will get. The task of reviving the ’Nucks is enormous.

It doesn’t require guesswork to figure out what Vancouver sought from Desjardins. Their new head coach signed his four-year deal six days after his 48-18-3-7 Texas Stars won the Calder. In 10 years of coaching, he’s never missed the playoffs. His combined CHL and AHL head-coaching record is a remarkable 424-222-67-15.

The Canucks are eager to turn the page on the dramas that threatened to unravel them in the last couple of seasons: alternate captain Ryan Kesler’s trade request, the circus in the goal crease, the John Tortorella chapter. Its nadir came last January, when the volatile head coach tried to fight his way into the Flames dressing room after a line brawl, looking to trade fists with Calgary’s head coach, Bob Hartley. Tortorella was hit with a 15-day suspension, which set off the seven-game losing streak that ultimately sank the season. Linden’s first act as president was giving the coach his walking papers.

Desjardins, with his soft prairie burr and no-nonsense moustache, is in many ways the anti-Torts. Gone are the zingers; the arrogance; the outbursts; the grating, tough-love approach to players. Desjardins’s emotional intelligence is off the charts.

Immediately after his hiring, Desjardins took to the road to meet the team’s core, to build trust. He travelled to Sweden, to have dinner with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the first time the twins had seen a coach during the off-season. He flew to Montreal to meet Alex Burrows, to Toronto to sit down with Kevin Bieksa, and to northern B.C., where Dan Hamhuis’s daughters led Desjardins through their Smithers home by the hand. Already, the mood inside the camp has lightened considerably, thanks in no small part to their down-to-earth bench hire.

Desjardins comes by it honestly. He was raised in a tight-knit farming family in hockey-mad Climax, Sask.—population 82—and he was named after his grandfather, Wilbrod, a blacksmith from Saint-Jérôme, Que. He was the youngest of three, the only boy. Willie and his pals, future NHLers Bryan Trottier and Gord Kluzak, spent entire winters on the backyard rink his father, Paul, built for them. Kids who couldn’t afford skates padded around in rubber boots. Neighbourhood dogs were forever wandering onto the ice, acting like extra defenders, when they weren’t running off with the puck.

In the Desjardins home, the rules were simple: Surround yourself with good people, and work hard. Willie modelled himself after Paul, an indefatigable farmer with a wry sense of humour. His approach to work would inspire his son to put in 18-hour days in hockey offices around the globe.

The first money Desjardins ever made coaching hockey went to buying a parcel of land alongside his dad’s, in Saskatchewan’s southwest. By then, he was studying education at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Since seeding coincided with his spring finals, Desjardins would study on his tractor. He and his dad used to sit side-by-side in the kitchen, before dawn, waiting for the sun to come up. They were so eager to get working, they couldn’t bear to waste a minute of sunlight.

Desjardins is not overly impressed with himself. “With my skating style, my size and my shot, I was probably going to look somewhere else to make a living,” the five-foot-eight, 160-pounder says with an easy laugh, in explaining his career choice. “It’s not like you dream of being a coach. You don’t. Once you can’t be a player, you try to find other ways to stay involved.” Dave King, more generously, says coaching was Desjardins’s destiny. He captained King’s University of Saskatchewan Huskies in the mid-’80s. While he still holds the school record for scoring, he paid more attention to his duties as captain.

“Willie was always coming into my office saying, ‘You know, Kinger, so-and-so isn’t playing very well; can you give him a little shot in the arm, give him some more ice time?’ ” He cared more about his teammates than he did about himself. That was so unusual.”

Desjardins’s career in hockey has been more Snakes and Ladders than a straightforward climb: to the University of Calgary, as an assistant coach. To Japan, to coach Tokyo’s Seibu Bears. Up to the WHL, in 2002. Then to the NHL in 2011, with Dallas, as an assistant. Down to the AHL, with the Stars’ affiliate in Cedar Park, in suburban Austin, Texas. Along the way, there have been stops in Nijmegen, in Holland, Sapporo and Saskatoon, for a half season with the Blades. Desjardins, who has three children—sons Brayden, 28, and Jayce, 14, and a daughter, Sheehan, 18—with his wife, broadcaster Rhonda Carlson-Desjardins, says his success has come at a heavy cost: “Every one of them has had to make sacrifices for this to happen.”

Carlson-Desjardins, unable to work in the U.S., had to abandon her media career. She delivered Sheehan alone in a Tokyo hospital. (Desjardins missed the last flight to Tokyo after his game went into overtime.) He missed Brayden’s birth, too. Sheehan had to give up a promising gymnastics career in Calgary to move to small-town Alberta. Desjardins has had to live apart from his family, sometimes for years at a time. He earns a living in hockey, yet has barely seen his own sons play the game. “You wonder: ‘How could anyone ever put their family through that?’ It’s not fair,” he says. “But that’s the life of the coach.”

The assignment in Medicine Hat was one of the toughest of Desjardins’s career. For decades, the storied Alberta franchise had been churning out NHL all-stars and racking up championships. But, in the late 1990s, the Tigers missed the playoffs for five straight years before Desjardins took over in 2002.

“Basically, he inherited a room of skilful losers,” says Steve Marr, Desjardins’s captain in Medicine Hat. He set a new tone on Day 1. “He gathered his vets for a meeting and announced: ‘We’re going to win a championship together.’ We all burst out laughing, thinking to ourselves, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ ” says Marr. “But, from camp on, all the guy ever talked about was winning.” The Tigers’ days as WHL doormats were over. At its core, “junior hockey is all about development under intense pressure to win,” says Andy Murray, the former L.A. Kings coach, now with the NCAA’s Western Michigan University. “Willie did the latter because he was good at the former.” He gave NHL long shots like Derek Dorsett, the Canucks’ scrappy new winger, the room and feedback to become pros. He poured time into moulding his young charges, often as they rode the bus from city to city: “They’d sit there, side-by-side in their seats,” says Shaun Clouston, Desjardins’s assistant in Medicine Hat. Half an hour would go by, then an hour—literally, two hours might go by and they’re still talking.”

Rather than try to bulldoze his way in, Desjardins took a step back after arriving in Medicine Hat. Recognizing he couldn’t reach all 32 players, he chose a leader within each clique, forming a leadership core that met regularly for coffee, breakfast and in his room on the road. The outliers may not have bought into Desjardins’s vision, but they were going to follow their buddies, who had.

Within a year, Desjardins’s diminutive Tigers had clawed their way to a league championship. What they lacked in size they more than made up for in determination and blistering speed. It’s the same approach Desjardins brings to Vancouver: a relentless, up-tempo, hard-skating, attacking game, and a marked contrast to Tortorella’s plodding, defence-first, puck pressure system. Desjardins’s style is based on a simple observation: It’s really hard to score these days. “When you shoot, the goaltender gets set. You have a better chance when the goaltender’s moving. Maybe you’re not 100 per cent ready. Sometimes, you’re going to make a mistake. But, overall, that’s your best chance. That’s the way I played the game. And that’s the way I see the game.”

In 2010, Desjardins was named head coach of Canada’s World Junior team. Led by Edmonton’s current co-captains, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, the talented squad was gunning for a sixth straight gold. But the U.S. spoiled their party, pulling off a 6-5 overtime heartbreaker in Saskatoon. The experience devastated Desjardins. “It’s something I still don’t like talking about,” he says. “To this day, I’ve never watched the game.” King, a mentor to whom he turns for advice on dark days, has told Desjardins over and over that there was nothing he could have done to alter the outcome. “Games like that come down to a lucky bounce. They aren’t a comment on coaching at all.” Desjardins disagrees: “As a coach, overtime or not, it’s your job to find a way to win.” He redoubled his studies in the wake of the loss. He remains convinced Canada “would have won the tournament,” had he known then what he does now.

As important, Desjardins has learned the importance of dialling down tension in the dressing room. Once, during a slump in Medicine Hat, players turned up at the rink expecting to be put through a gruelling workout. Instead, Desjardins cancelled practice and organized a ball hockey tournament. Another time, he convinced police in Medicine Hat to pull over the team bus. Things had gotten too serious, and he wanted to prank the driver, to defuse tension and get his boys laughing again. But when he feels his players need it, he’ll ramp it up. After one particularly ugly loss, he made each of his Tigers write the name of a loved one inside their jerseys, to remind them what they were playing for, to take pride in their game.

Players love ribbing the good-humoured coach they call “whiteboard Willie,” since he’s never seen without his whiteboard. But no one was laughing in Dallas, in November 2011, when the Stars stole a win from a superior Kings squad with a play Desjardins dreamed up in a time out. Off the faceoff, Desjardins sent Loui Eriksson charging down the ice. The explosive Swede caught a cross-ice feed with 20.3 seconds remaining in the game, beating a sprawling Jonathan Quick. Two minutes into overtime, the Stars clinched the game, their first win in six meetings with Quick.

Desjardins wants to win every game, every practice. He demands accountability at every moment. Behind the bench, he’s a flurry of activity, twitching side to side as he follows the action on the ice, shadow-skating with his players, dodging checks, dancing through the defence, crashing the net. Team trainers once strapped him to a heart monitor. During games, Desjardins’s heart is beating as fast as if he were working out. He’s so focused, he is oblivious to anything above ice level.

Once, in his tenure with the University of Calgary, the school installed an organ above Desjardins’s bench at Father Bauer Arena. Between whistles, the organist pounded out bars from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Fans loved it. But it was absurdly loud. When Desjardins got home that night, Rhonda asked him whether the organ had made it hard to hear his players on the bench. Desjardins gave her a blank stare. He hadn’t noticed a thing.

Last week, Desjardins showed the Canucks a video of a pot of water being brought to a boil. By the time the water hit 211° F, it was white-hot. At 212° F, it began to boil and create steam. A single degree made a world of difference, Desjardins explained: Suddenly, that water is strong enough to power a 240-tonne locomotive. It’s that extra degree Desjardins is aiming to get from the Canucks this season.

He is aware that dark days lie ahead, that a couple of ugly losses will upend the current period of grace. He’s learned the value of persistence. Heading into the World Junior finals four years ago, one hockey columnist gave Canada’s bench boss a “snowball’s chance in hell” of translating the experience into an NHL coaching gig—not a unique view. Desjardins responded just as he always has: by taking lessons from the losses, finding new ways to win, steadily pushing his game to the next level. And working even harder.