A Different Coach with a Different Voice

The Kamloops Blazers starting the new WHL season with a completely different management team is reminiscent of what happened 37 years ago after major junior hockey returned to Kamloops.
Although people were excited to see the WHL hit the ice in the fall of 1980, there wasn`t much enthusiasm in the spring after a rough 18-53 & 1 ride. Well over 40 players shared the misery and the next season, 1981-82, there were top to bottom changes.
Enter the Bill Laforge era, not to be confused with Bill Laforge Jr, his son who was appointed GM of the Seatlle Thunderbirds this past off season.
Bill Sr was given the keys to the car as coach and GM, to rebuild a group that had become all too comfortable with losing. (I remember Bill telling me, `Bear, it has to hurt to lose` but that`s a story for another time). With Bruce Harralson as player personnel director, and Laforge pulling the strings, most of the 60 man protected list changed two months into the hockey season.
The tone was set on the first day of training camp at the Sports Centre. Players accommodations were at the Boys and Girls Club beside the arena, and when they were all registered and hitting the cots, Laforge ordered security to lock the doors and not let anybody in past curfew.
When he arrived the next morning for the start of on-ice sessions, he pulled into the parking lot to see some players sleeping in their cars, and, others crashed out under trees in the grassy areas around the building.
After rounding them up, he delivered the message. They were done in Kamloops before they could unpack their bags. They were all released regardless of their reasons for not making curfew. The party was over. Welcome to accountability!
Some players from the 18-53 & 1 team had also played on the 17-54 & 1 team in New Westminster before it moved to Kamloops, and some played for the 10-61 & 1 team the season before that with the Bruins.
The urgency to win was never greater and Billy`s Boys of 1981-82 set the bar for team cohesiveness. They were family who stuck up for each other and played like they were tired of losing. That should take nothing away from the 92, 94 & 95 Memorial Cup teams. They were all great in their own way, in fact the 95 team was voted the best all time in WHL history this past season.
Now, here we are turning the page to 2018, the Blazers have not made the playoffs in three of the last five years, including a franchise worst 14 wins in 2014, prompting the hiring of Don Hay who grinded out 28, 38, 42 and 30 wins in each of his last four seasons behind the Kamloops bench. Hay`s 282 career wins over 7 years in Kamloops is second to Ken Hitchcock`s 291 over 6 years.
Serge Lajoie will be looking for his first when the puck drops in September. A different coach with a different voice, but the same urgency despite a different landscape. A week of training camp will decide who steps up to the challenge.
The team came out of last season with 20 players eligible to return, It came down to 17 with Justin Sigrist not being brought back, Quinn Benjafield being traded to Edmonton and, Jackson Sheppard to Lethbridge.
I`d bet on as many as five changes to get to 12 returnees for the start of the regular season. The Saskatchewan connection of Quinn Schmiemann, Kyrell Sopatyk, and Josh Pillar should become household names.
The bets are off on who achieves, under achieves or over achieves but there should be no mistaking the hunger factor in the post Don Hay era. And speaking of Hay, Hazer the Hawk doesn`t have quite the same ring to it as Hayzer the Blazer, but the hockey world revolves in mysterious ways.
I`m happy to see the Kamloops icon getting the chance to continue coaching with the red and black of the Portland Winterhawks. His time ran out in Kamloops because of a decision by the ownership group, but there should be enough humility to go around, to wish him the best.