Don Hay has been around hockey’s block a time or two.
These days, at the age of 62, he is seen as the godfather of WHL coaches.
Hay has more playoff victories than any head coach in WHL history and is No. 2 on the regular-season list.
Despite all that he has accomplished, we may have witnessed the best coaching job of his career in 2015-16 as he got his Kamloops Blazers into overtime of Game 7 of a first-round series with the Kelowna Rockets.
Hay will tell you that he didn’t do it alone, that assistant coaches Mike Needham, Terry Bangen, Dan DePalma and Chris Murray had something to do with it.
He’ll tell you that Stu MacGregor, who moved in as general manager early in the season, also figured in what happened, especially with the acquisitions of centre Gage Quinney and defenceman Dallas Valentine.
But, at the end of the day, this was Hay’s team.
It was his team that started the regular season by losing its first six games, all the while looking for the most part like a playoff spot was a pipe dream.
It was his team that was clinging to its playoff life as the calendar turned to February. In fact, from Jan. 20 through Feb. 6, the Blazers lost eight of nine games and for a time it looked like they would end up outside the playoffs for a third straight season.
And it was Hay’s team that won its last nine regular-season games, three of them over the Rockets and two of those in Kelowna.
History shows that Hay likes his teams to be comprised of mostly large forwards, who can go behind the other team’s goal line and bang around its defencemen. He likes a group of defencemen that includes at least one puck mover and, yes, some size. He also likes to hop on one goaltender and ride him hard.
This season, Hay had that goaltender in Connor Ingram, who had one of the best seasons in franchise history.
However, Hay didn’t have the large forwards who play with an edge, nor did he have a back-end crew that fit his blueprint.
But, boy, did the head coach ever adapt as the season wore on.
Hay took defenceman Ryan Rehill, perhaps the WHL’s toughest player and best scrapper, and turned him into an effective power-play quarterback and one of the league’s top defenders. Hay took the youngsters who inhabited that defence and, as they say, coached them up. Cam Reagan, a healthy scratch early on, became a solid defender. Ondrej Vala’s second-half play opened a lot of eyes. The Blazers will be better off for all of this come next season.
As well, the forwards quit trying to play dump-and-chase. They turned to a quick transition game and got a lot of their chances and goals off the rush. Shoot the puck, get the rebound, shoot the puck again. That was the game plan.
And it all came together as the Blazers peaked at precisely the right time, ending the regular season on that nine-game tear that allowed them to pass the Prince George Cougars and get into third place in the B.C. Division.
So hot were the Blazers that there were people who felt they were slight favourites to take out the Rockets in the first round. Never mind that the Rockets had led the overall standings for a good chunk of the season. Never mind that the Rockets had finished 15 points ahead of the Blazers.
In the end, the Rockets had to go seven games to shake off the Blazers and you can make the case that only a scheduling quirk kept Kamloops from winning the series.
With the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Championship in the Sandman Centre, the Blazers had to play their first home game in the series, Game 3, in Memorial Arena. The smaller ice surface didn’t accommodate their puck-possession game and they dropped a 1-0 decision to fall behind 2-1 in the best-of-seven affair. One night later, back in their home arena, the Blazers posted a 5-1 victory. Later, in Game 6, which also was played at the Sandman Centre, the Blazers rolled to a 4-0 victory.
We will never know what might have happened had the Blazers not had to move Game 3 to the old barn. But they did outscore the Rockets 9-1 in the two games played on the big ice.
So what’s ahead for the Blazers?
Well, they really will miss Rehill’s leadership and size on defence next season and forward Matt Needham will be gone after spending five seasons here. But centre Garrett Pilon shows the promise of being a big-time player and left-winger Jermaine Loewen, who improved by leaps and bounds, has the tools to be an imposing power forward. Perhaps he and Quinn Benjafield, who will be into his third season, can provide some of the banging and crashing that normally is such a big part of the game Hay likes to play.
While the last nine games of the regular season and the seven playoff games created some excitement around the Blazers, it wasn’t enough to save what was not a good season at the gate.
According to announced attendance figures compiled by the WHL, the Blazers drew an average of 3,769 fans to their 36 regular-season home games. That is down 225 per game from the previous season. It also is a decrease of 1,056 from 2012-13, when the average announced attendance was 4,825.
This season, the Blazers drew six of the seven smallest crowds — and seven of the 10 smallest — in the history of the Sandman Centre, which opened as Riverside Coliseum for the 1992-93 season.
Obviously, there is as much work to do off the ice as on.
Was this season Hay's best as coach?
Don Hay has been around hockey’s block a time or two.