Vancouver Giants fail to make Hay under spotlight
Wondrous coach gets first view from the bottom of WHL at worst possible time
Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay looks on from the bench during a March 2011 Western Hockey League game against the visiting Chilliwack Bruins at the Pacific Coliseum.
Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun PNG
VANCOUVER — Well, this is a fine time for Don Hay to be mortal and the Vancouver Giants to look lilliputian.
As discussions between the National Hockey League and its locked-out players deteriorated Thursday in New York, pouring a little more mercury into the well from which fans are asked to drink, the hockey stage west of Abbotsford is wide open.
It was the Giants who filled the void during the last lockout, emerging during the 2004-05 winter as a credible Western Hockey League power under their new coach, Hay. Owner Ron Toigo has said that season, in the absence of NHL hockey, made the Giants as a franchise. The team went to the Memorial Cup the following season and a year after that won its first national title.
The Giants became a WHL flagship under Toigo, Hay and general manager Scott Bonner. It has rolled off eight straight winning seasons, won at least 40 of their 72 games six times, never failed to make the playoffs and during a five-year stretch that ended in 2010 played 18 WHL playoff rounds and two Memorial Cup tournaments.
It was an astounding run of superiority in a league where teams typically cycle up and down the standings every three years or so as their best players mature, get better, dominate, then graduate to professional hockey at 19 or 20.
Only four years ago, the Giants lost 10 games during an entire season. Wednesday, they had lost seven straight before beating the Victoria Royals 7-2. Going into their home game Friday against the Swift Current Broncos, the Giants are 8-20-0, last in their division, last overall in the league.
This is finally the morning after all those heady nights, the down cycle that was due years ago. But their timing sucks.
“This year is a bad year for this to happen to the organization,” Hay said Thursday before the Giants practised in Ladner. “I wish we had a better team to get people out to games.”
The Giants’ 20 losses in slightly more than a third of the season are more defeats than they endured in any full campaign between 2006 and 2009. Until last week, Hay said, the Giants hadn’t lost more than five consecutive games since he arrived in Vancouver in 2004.
With 567 career wins in the WHL – Hay had stints in the 1990s with the Tri-City Americans and Kamloops Blazers – three Memorial Cups titles and an uncomfortable acknowledgment at the end of the 20th Century as the best coach in WHL history, Hay doesn’t believe he’d ever had a seven-game losing streak.
That low was hit with a 4-3 loss to Tri-City on Saturday. In front of a Pacific Coliseum crowd of 7,105 on Trevor Linden Night, the Giants blew a late lead and allowed American Beau McCue to score the winning goal on a shorthanded breakaway with 5.9 seconds remaining.
“That was a long night,” Hay said, referring to what followed. “There are times when I’ve asked myself: ‘What is going on here?’ Because I never thought we’d be bottom of the league. You’ve really got to be careful so that it doesn’t overcome you. You’ve got to find a way to let it go. For me, it’s hard because I get up in the morning thinking about the game and go to bed thinking about the game.
“This is something that I haven’t felt. Maybe it’s good for me to go through a year like this because, to me, it’s not about wins right now, it’s about coaching. This is a pure coaching year.”
There really isn’t much mystery to the Giants’ struggle.
So good for so long, they annually bulked up for the playoffs by trading draft picks or prospects for established players. Their best older players, trained by Hay and his staff, were almost never sent back by the NHL teams that drafted them for their final season of junior. And finishing near the top of the standings every season meant picking near the bottom of the bantam draft each year, too.
Throw in some bad luck, like season-ending surgery last month to top scorer Marek Tvrdon, the odd bad trade and a couple of thin drafts and you have an 8-20 team.
“Anything that could go wrong has,” Bonner said. “For years, we stayed very competitive and were always a threat. But we were always having to make trades at the deadline . . . and it caught up to us. We had some missed picks. But the thing that hurt us the most was having kids graduate early (to professional hockey) because that forces you to make moves that you otherwise wouldn’t. There’s just certain things you’re not going to recover from.”
Bonner said a decision was made with ownership last summer to do a full rebuild — not to try to be better next season but to have a dynamic, powerful team that could win a Memorial Cup in three or four years.
Three of the best players on the Giants, the foundation for the rebuild, are 17-year-old winger Jackson Houck, 17-year-old defenceman Mason Geertsen and 16-year-old goalie Payton Lee. Bonner has accumulated 15 picks in the top three rounds of the next two bantam drafts. Four of those selections are in the first round. If they draft well, the Giants should be powerful again in a couple of seasons. But that doesn’t help Hay, who has done nothing but win as a junior coach, sleep better in the short-term.
“Those details and those standards you have in place when you’re winning 50 games, you better have the same ones when you’re winning 20 games or else the team isn’t going to get better,” he said. “It becomes not about wins anymore. It becomes about getting better, about improvement, about competing and little victories over big victories. If you just focus on wins, there’s not going to be much satisfaction.”
For eight years, there hasn’t been much else but wins.
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