HAY ROLLS WITH HAWKS
It's no stretch to say there has never been a Western Hockey League coaching staff quite as acclaimed as the one currently fielded by the Winterhawks.
There's Portland native Kyle Gustafson, the associate head coach who is in his 15th year with the club and now has the dual role of assistant general manager.
There's head coach Mike Johnston, who coached the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins for a year and a half between a pair of stints with the Hawks. Johnston has won 347 regular-season games in his nine seasons, and the win total should be more. Johnston, also Portland's vice president and GM, was suspended by the WHL for most of the 2012-13 season for minor rules violations, depriving him of working with the team he had in line for a WHL championship and Memorial Cup appearance that season.
Then there is Don Hay, among the most unlikely of assistant coaches in league history.
Hay, who turns 65 on Feb. 13, is a legend in junior hockey. The Kamloops, British Columbia, native ranks No. 1 on the WHL career coaching list with 750 victories over 19 seasons with Kamloops, Vancouver and Tri-City. He coached three teams to Memorial Cup championships, emblematic of junior hockey supremacy in North America.
But after a lackluster 2017-18 season in which the Kamloops Blazers failed to make the playoffs, Hay was let go. The Blazers gave him a job as a coaching consultant, "but it didn't feel comfortable," Hay says.
Hay felt he was being put out to pasture. He wasn't sure there if there was to be another coaching gig, or if he was now retired from the profession. Was it time for him to spend more time on the golf course and with his five grandchildren, or did he have something left in coaching?
"When you get to be my age, you never know," Hay says. "I'm healthy. I felt I could still coach at this level. But (teams) are looking for the younger coach."
Then in August, Hay got a call from Johnston. Assistant coach Danny Flynn had been hired as a scout for the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets. The start of training camp was just a few weeks away.
"I thought, 'Who am I going to get to replace Danny this late?'" Johnston says.
Johnston and Hay had been friends since 1995, when they coached together with the Canadian team that won gold in the World Junior Championships. They'd coached against each other for years in the WHL, had played golf in the summers and traded drill packages and coaching ideas.
"This is way out there," Johnston told Hay after alerting him to his dilemma. "I know you're the top coach in WHL history, but I'd like you to come and work for me. Do you have any interest?"
Hay had gotten feelers from a couple of other clubs but wasn't sure what he wanted to do. Very quickly, he returned the call to Johnston.
"I'd love to join your staff," Hay said.
Five months later, Hay sits for an off-day interview adorned in a Winterhawks coaching shirt and laughs.
"I never thought I'd be wearing Winterhawks gear," he says. "That was our biggest rival for a lot of years.
"I was in my car, driving home from a hockey school in B.C., when Mike called and told me Danny was leaving. I thought Mike meant the following season, not this season. He said, 'It's for right now.'"
Hay spent the evening discussing the situation with his wife of 45 years, Vicki.
"I just want to try this for a year," he told her. "I really want to do it."
"I have a lot of respect for Mike," he says now. "A lot of people have asked me since I came to Portland, 'Why would you want to be an assistant coach again?' Well, it's a great opportunity to learn from a real good coach, to be part of a good organization. Portland has always been a favorite city for me. It's a new adventure, so to speak. I think I can help Mike and his staff by giving my knowledge.
"I didn't like the way it ended in Kamloops. You want to go out under your own terms. This was a good way to stay active, to stay in the league, to continue educating myself in the game."
Johnston has been asked a similar question since the hiring of Hay: "Why bring in a guy who has been a head coach for so long? Don't you worry he might want to take over?"
"You always want to keep yourself sharp as a coach," says Johnston, who turns 61 on Feb. 19. "It's been great for me to have Danny (a renowned junior coach in the Quebec and Ontario leagues) one year and Don the next. These guys aren't afraid to offer ideas. Don has been outstanding. I told him to come in for the year and see if he likes it. He's enjoyed it, and I've loved having him around."
• • •
Hay grew up in Kamloops, the youngest of three sons of a railroader. He played many sports as a youngster and took to hockey as a team, playing three years of junior hockey, the last for the legendary Ernie "Punch" McLean with the New Westminster (B.C.) Bruins of the WHL.
Hay would go on to three seasons in the minor leagues — the American Hockey League, the International Hockey League, the North American Hockey League — before giving up his playing career.
"I was an average player," he says. "It was the life lessons that proved most important to me, more than the hockey lessons. I learned about work ethic, about competing, about the integrity of and respect for the game."
Already married and beginning a family that would include three children, Hay caught on as a firefighter with the city of Kamloops and was making a decent living when he took a job as an assistant coach on Ken Hitchcock's staff with the WHL Blazers in 1986. Hitchcock has gone on to be a head coach for 22 years in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1998-99, and currently is head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. Hitchcock served as a mentor to Hay in his developmental years as a coach.
For seven years, Hay was an assistant with the Blazers while keeping his job as a firefighter. In 1992, he was offered the team's head coaching position, under orders that he would have to give up full-time firefighting.
"I was making $42,000 as a firefighter and would make $35,000 as head coach (of the Blazers)," Hay says. "When I told Vicki, she just shook her head. We had three young kids to raise. She still let me try it, knowing I could always go back to the fire hall if things didn't work out."
Hay's Kamloops teams won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 1993-94 and 1994-95, fortifying his reputation in the hockey community.
He moved to a different level when he accepted a job as assistant coach of the NHL Calgary Flames in 1995-96. A year later, Hay was hired as head coach of the inaugural Phoenix Coyotes.
The Coyotes went 38-37-7 and took the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to seven games before falling in a first-round playoff series — and Hay was fired. Coyotes GM John Paddock — now coach of the WHL Regina Pats — was fired at midseason, and his replacement wanted his own hire on the job.
"I thought we'd done a pretty good job for a first year," Hay says. "We were close, but I guess close didn't count. When you get fired, you do a lot of soul-searching."
Hay spent a season as an assistant with the Mighty Ducks before returning to the WHL for two seasons as head coach in Tri-City. He then landed another head NHL job, this time with Calgary. He lasted 68 games in the 2000-01 season before being fired. It was his last fling with the NHL.
"The NHL is different than juniors," Hay says. "I always thought if you won, that was the main purpose. But there is a lot more gray area in the NHL than the black and white of the junior game. There are more personalities to deal with."
Hay coached three seasons with Utah in the AHL before returning to the WHL for good, starting in Vancouver in 2004-05. His second season with the Giants, they won a WHL title and reached the Memorial Cup. The next season, the Giants claimed the Cup.
Hay spent 10 seasons with the Giants before moving on to Kamloops, where he coached four more seasons. Last year, he passed Portland's Ken Hodge to become the winningest WHL coach in history. Hodge, who still lives in Portland and continues to serve as a consultant with the organization, had won 742 games in 22 seasons with the Hawks.
Hay and Hodge had been rival coaches for years.
"My first game on the road as a (WHL head coach) was against Ken in Portland in 1992," Hay says. "They beat us something like 7-3. I can remember a lot of big playoff games at (Memorial Coliseum). I'd come in to Portland, go for a run down the (Willamette) river and wonder what it would be like to live in this city.
"When I was young breaking in as an assistant coach, I thought Hodgie was a grumpy old guy. I was intimidated to even talk to him. As I began my coaching career, we would talk briefly in passing. Then I got to know him when I went to Tri-City as a general manager. One day, we rode in a car from Spokane to Tri-City and got to know each other. He has twin daughters; I have twin daughters. We had some things in common.
"He's a real interesting guy. He held the record for a long time and should be proud of it. After I broke his record, he congratulated me, and we had a couple of laughs over old times."
• • •
Hay has found his calling working with junior players in the WHL.
"They are younger guys, apprenticing to get to the NHL," he says. "I call it 'Hockey 101.' The ice is your classroom. It's where they learn how to work, and how to play hockey. NHL players are older, more seasoned. You don't have to worry about the discipline as much. They're more finished, more polished.
"But I enjoy the junior level, where you can teach. You help young players become adults and make good decisions, and you can implant life skills as well. I love working with the kids."
Hay has found the role as an assistant coach in Portland to his liking in another way.
"I'm not the disciplinarian here," he says. "I'm not the voice of structure. I'm here to support, not only Mike and Kyle but the players. That's been a really fun part of this year — getting to know the players on a different level, doing video with them, talking to them, getting to know them as people without being the head coach."
Vicki Hay has stayed home in Kamloops by herself this year. Don lives in a studio apartment in Portland, missing his wife but fending well for himself.
"When we talk, she always asks how it's going," he says. "I say, 'I'm learning something different every day.' I'm excited to get to the rink, to work with the players. Working with these players keeps me young. We got off the bus (after a recent 20-hour trip), and my body was sore. But the next day, I was excited to get going again."
Hay enjoys a strong relationship with Johnston.
"He's right there as the No. 1 guy in the league for the job he does," Hay says. "Mike is very organized, very professional, very detailed. He has a plan and he sticks with it.
"One of the things he teaches the young players is to carry yourself like a pro, and hopefully one day you'll become a pro. I'm observing him and learning a lot. His approach to the game is very good. It's a great learning experience for young players to come in here and play for Mike."
Will Hay be back in his same role next season?
"To be continued," he says with a smile. "I signed a one-year contract. I've really enjoyed it so far. We'll revisit it at the end of the year. I love the organization. They've treated me great. I have nothing but great things to say about (president) Doug Piper and Mike and their staffs.
"I feel I'm learning; I feel I'm giving something back. I don't know what's going to happen. I'd like to come back if it works out that way, but we'll see what happens."
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)