For the first time in 33 hockey seasons, Don Hay was planning to spend 2018-19 somewhere other than behind a bench.
That plan quickly changed when Danny Flynn recently left the Portland Winterhawks to become a scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Hay — who has won more games (750) than any other head coach in Western Hockey League history — was at the top of Mike Johnston's list when he needed an assistant coach shortly before this week's training camp.
By Monday, as Winterhawks players went through fitness testing at Memorial Coliseum, Hay was back in coach mode, eager to begin another hockey season.
"I was pretty excited when I got the phone call to see if I was interested," Hay says. "I'm really excited about (coaching) with Mike. I think I can learn a lot from him and I can offer him a lot of different things and help (associate coach) Kyle (Gustafson) grow as a coach."
The link between Hay and Johnston dates to 1994. Hay was the head coach and Johnston an assistant for Team Canada, which won the gold medal at the 1995 World Juniors Championships.
In the mid 2000s, Gustafson was a young assistant coach for a Winterhawks club at the bottom of the WHL and Hay was coaching the Vancouver Giants to WHL and Memorial Cup titles. After a Giants win at the coliseum, Hay pulled aside Gustafson.
"He said, 'Whatever you do, just make sure you enjoy coming to the rink,'" Gustafson remembers. "That's something that will always stick with me. From then on, we always stayed in touch."
This is the second summer in a row Johnston has hired a successful veteran head coach as his assistant. Flynn won championships as a head coach in the Ontario and Quebec junior leagues before coming to Portland.
Johnston says such hires are about continuing to improve himself as a coach while giving his players elite-level instruction.
"You always want to push yourself as a coach. You want to push your program to look at things differently. How can we do things better? We always talk about that," Johnston says. "And having a coach come in with a ton of experience, who has seen a lot of things and has won championships like Danny (Flynn) or like Don, it helps us (look at things differently)."
This will be Hay's first time as a full-time assistant coach since the 1997-98 season with Anaheim in the NHL.
Prior to becoming the Kamloops head coach for the first time in 1992-93, Hay was an assistant coach with the Blazers under future NHL coaches Ken Hitchcock (five seasons) and Tom Renney (two seasons). In the first of those seasons, Kamloops reached the Memorial Cup, played at Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
"I enjoyed those years," he says. "It's a role where you get closer to the players and you can help them in small details and help them reach their goals."
Now he's back at Memorial Coliseum. He admits it feels a little strange to be here, helping coach a team that has long been a respected rival.
"You feel like a rookie again. You're sitting in the meetings and you feel fresh and new and excited and nervous," Hay says. "Those are all good signs."
n Ryan Hughes should begin skating in a couple of weeks. The Hawks forward is recovering from a cleanup procedure on the ankle he injured early last season.
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