Hay reminisces after tying WHL record . . . Shares career mark with Hodge . . . Standard of 742 could fall tonight

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Kamloops head coach Don Hay (third from left) accepts congratulations from forward Carson Denomie at the bench as trainer Colin Robinson (left) and assistant coaches Dan DePalma, Aaron Keller and Mike Needham wait to greet him.

Down below, the arena had emptied as the mostly satisified fans headed out into the Kamloops night.

The cleaning staff was sweeping and picking up bottles, getting ready for another day and another game.

In the press box, Don Hay pulled up a chair, the radio interview finished and most of his responsibilities done for the night. He undid his tie, took a deep breath and offered up a satisfied smile.

Hay’s Kamloops Blazers had just beaten the Portland Winterhawks, 5-2, for what was the 742nd regular-season coaching victory of his WHL career.

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That tied Hay with Ken Hodge as the winningest regular-season coaches in WHL history. Hodge had held the record since retiring as a coach after the 1992-93 season. Hodge spent the first three seasons (1973-76) of his WHL coaching career with the original Edmonton Oil Kings, and the remainder with the Winterhawks, the franchise having moved to the Oregon city after the 1975-76 season.

Hay will have an opportunity to break the record tonight as the Blazers and Winterhawks complete a doubleheader in Kamloops. They will play again Sunday, too, this time in Portland.

Hay, who will be 63 next month, and Hodge, 71, are hockey lifers.

Hodge’s playing career was cut short by an eye injury while with the Moose Jaw Canucks of what was then the Western Canada Hockey League, and he turned to coaching. He may have been the youngest head coach in junior hockey history when, at 21, he took over the QMJHL’s Sorel Eperviers in 1968.

As a result, Hay and Hodge were never opponents as players, but they certainly were as coaches.

Their paths did come within a couple of seasons of crossing at one point. Hodge was the head coach of the International league’s Flint Generals for four seasons (1969-73). Hay played one season with the Generals, 1975-76, by which time Hodge was with the Oil Kings.

On Friday, when Hay looked back, the first memory came from Oct. 9, 1992 . . .

Hay, then 38, had gotten his first victory on opening night, Sept. 26, 1992, when the Blazers beat the host Tacoma Rockets, 7-6 in overtime. “Yeah,” Hay says, “we were losing after two periods and Hnat Domenichelli got a hat trick in the third.”

The Blazers went on to lose 7-3 to the Chiefs in Spokane on Oct. 2, then dropped a 4-3 OT decision in Portland the next night.

But it’s that Oct. 9 game that sticks in Hay’s memory.

It was his first home game as the Blazers’ head coach. A Kamloops native, he spent seven seasons as an assistant coach with the team, before taking a leave of absence from the city’s fire department and signing on as head coach.

This game also was the first in the history of what was then Riverside Coliseum and now is the Sandman Centre.

“The building was full and we raised a banner,” Hay says.

The Blazers had won the WHL championship and the Memorial Cup in 1991-92.

“After the game, I’m in my office, my assistants don’t come in,” Hay continues. “We lost about 8-2. We got taught a lesson by Mr. Hodge.”

Aaron Keller and Chris Murray, both of them now on Hay’s coaching staff, were in the Kamloops lineup that night.

“I asked Aaron, ‘Do you remember that game?’ ” Hay says. “He told me, ‘Oh yeah, we lost 8-2.’ ”

Hay chuckles again. He loves the stories and the memories.

“I can remember sitting in that room going, ‘Did I make the right decision leaving the fire hall? Maybe I should go back to the fire hall.’

“(General manager) Bob Brown came in and he was really good. He said, ‘You’re the guy to coach us. We have a lot of faith and belief in you.’ ”

Hay spent two more seasons as the Blazers’ head coach, winning back-to-back Memorial Cups in 1994 and ’95, before giving the pro game a try.

He later spent two seasons (1998-2000) as head coach of the Tri-City Americans before trying the pro game again.

He returned to the WHL in 2004 and spent 10 seasons with the Vancouver Giants, before coming back to his hometown over the summer of 2014.

By the time Hay returned to the WHL, Hodge had retired from coaching. He spent the next 15 seasons as the general manager, and was an owner for part of that time.

“I didn’t coach a lot of games against him, but when I was an assistant those seven years we had a lot of playoff series with him,” Hay says. “I really respect the job he did . . . it’s a pretty special record to tie.

“And it was nice to do it at home.”

Hay also tied the record with a good friend working the other bench.

Mike Johnston, Portland’s vice-president, general manager and head coach, and Hay have been friends since they were together on the coaching staff with Team Canada as it won the 1995 World Junior Championship in Red Deer.

“He was a big help on that coaching staff,” Hay says, “and we’ve been friends ever since.”

They are close enough that they try to to spend at least one day each summer playing golf, having lunch “and talking hockey,” Hay says. They also connect at various coaches’ conferences.

When was the last time they spoke?

Hay chuckles and says: “I talked to him (Friday) morning . . . we’ll probably talk (this) morning.”

Later today, their teams will meet as Hay gets his first shot at becoming the winningest regular-season coach in WHL history.

At the same time, Johnston, who turns 61 next month, will be trying to become the 23rd head coach in WHL history with 300 victories.

No matter the outcome, the friendship will endure. Johnston, like Hay, is a hockey lifer.

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