CALGARY — Brian Kilrea is one of a large busload of Canadian national junior hockey team alumni in Calgary this week, but forget shmoozing, 'Killer' was bird-dogging Team Canada's practice on Monday.
At 77, with 1,193 victories as the legendary head man with the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s, the retired coach now scouts for the 67’s and still has an unquenchable passion for hockey.
Kilrea’s 67’s missed the OHL playoffs just once in his 31 years coaching in Ottawa, where he also won a pair of Memorial Cups.
In 1984, Kilrea was head coach of Canada’s entry at the IIHF world junior championship, leading them to a fourth-place finish.
“We had fun,” Kilrea remembered. “I thought we had a real good team. We lost the first game to Finland. That’s when they had (Jari) Kurri and a whole bunch of guys.
‘We didn’t know much about them. They beat us 4-2 and we had Ken Wregget in nets, who played great.
“We won all our other (round-robin) games. We went into our last two games, we tied the Russians 3-3 and that knocked us out of the gold medal (contention).
The cigar-chomping, gruff Kilrea, nephew of late, ex-NHLers Wally, Ken and Hec Kilrea, is a human landmark in the Ottawa region, often seen as a something a hockey throwback, if not an outright dinosaur.
Which is a canard.
Some people are fooled by the gruff exterior. The truth is, Kilrea was a creative coach disguised as a dinosaur.
In the early 1990s, Kris Draper played for the 67’s after spending a couple of seasons playing for Canada’s national team, under Dave King.
Kilrea used to grumble, half-jokingly, that he had to reprogram Draper after King, one of this country’s great hockey minds, introduced too many bad habits.
Draper, who would go on to a distinguished NHL career, mostly with Detroit, also played for the national junior team twice. But when he got back from the mid-season tournament one year, Kilrea summoned his gruff, crotchety self to deliver a locker-room speech to refocus his young star.
“I remember telling them, ‘I’m just glad they got all these damn, Mickey Mouse hockey tournaments over with so we can get back to some serious hockey,’ ” Kilrea said Monday morning at Hockey Canada’s practice rink at the WinSport Complex. “Well, Kris Draper’s jaw just dropped.
“I was just trying to get them back to reality. The tournament’s over, now it’s serious business.”
Back in the late 1970s, Kilrea’s 67’s recruited Bjorn Skaare for their club. Skaare became the first Norwegian player to play in the NHL and was one of many European players who have performed well for the 67’s.
This season, the 67’s star is flamboyant Czech goalie Petr Mrazek, who has backstopped his team to the quarter-finals at the world juniors.
“He’s played (just as) well for us,” Kilrea said of the 67’s star goaltender. “We’re in first place because of him, back in our division.
“He’s just done everything that we expected of him. He’s just so good a guy, so good a kid. Happy-go-lucky, but fierce on the ice.”
In his three-decade-long career, Kilrea was a presence behind the bench, certainly no-nonsense, but as savvy as they come.
“I think people thought I was a dinosaur because I was a bit gruff and we worked hard,” Kilrea said. “I was different in practice.
“I didn’t use all the terms that go with showing how smart you are. I didn’t use 50 different drills to show that I read the book. All I did was work on skating, passing and shooting. So people used to say, ‘Well, that’s the same drill you use every day.’
“I said, ‘That’s right. In a game, don’t you skate, pass and shoot? Every day? If we had a trademark, it was always that we moved the puck quickly.”
Asked whether he still enjoys his trademark cigars, Kilrea didn’t hesitate.
“Yup. I went for a nice walk this morning. I had a couple of Molson last night, I had my cigar this morning and (Team Canada head coach) Don Hay and George (assistant coach, Burnett) set up a ride for me to come over here.
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