There are times during a hockey career when a player needs a gift to get him through difficult times.
It was the 1982-83 season, my second with the Ontario Hockey League's Belleville Bulls, which selected me in the major junior draft. We had finished last in our conference the year before, 11th overall in a 14-team league. Belleville was a terrific city that loved its hockey. The Bulls were coached by an old-school former WHA player, Larry Mavety. I loved Mav, but our days together were done and we both knew it.
Wayne Gretzky had just bought our team, and after he coached us (yes, the Great One!) to a 7-0 win in Oshawa during the preseason, I thought I might be getting back to my old self. But 12 games into the season, I was 3-8-0, and I couldn't keep it together.
One morning, Mavety called me to his house, sat me down and asked if I would like to go to Ottawa, my hometown, and play for Brian Kilrea and the Ottawa 67's.
I grew up going to 67's games and saw great players like Doug Wilson, Jim Fox, Steve Payne and Bobby Smith play for Killer. I had always wanted to wear a barber pole sweater and play in my hometown. I couldn't get there fast enough.
Killer called me and asked if I could play that night in Kingston. In an instant I had gone from the worst team to the best, and its coach wanted me to start immediately. I felt better about myself already. That night I was named first star in a 4-3 win. The bus ride back to Ottawa with my new teammates was a blast. I went 28-14-3 in Ottawa that season. The next year, I went 29-10-1 and we won the Memorial Cup, Killer's first of two.
While playing on one of the best teams in major junior hockey helped my confidence, it was Coach Kilrea himself who made me a better player and person. He had the ability to make you feel good about yourself when you needed it most, and an uncanny knack for kicking you in the rear end to get more out of you when you were being too cocky.
I have said for years that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. On Monday, he will be enshrined forever. He is the greatest coach that has ever stood behind a bench in the history of junior hockey -- quite possibly all of hockey -- just behind great men like Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour.
I didn't understand in the '80s what playing for Killer was all about, but I do now. We would sit in the back of the bus and watch this amiable man have a cold beer (Red Cap, I believe) while listening to the voice of the great Canadian singer Anne Murray non-stop on the eight-track. He'd talk shop, telling stories as only he can, and think about our next game and how we can improve and win another. That was 20 years ago. He's still that same great coach today, the one who comes to the rink day after day with the same passion to make everyone a better player.
Killer certainly made me better. I remember like it was yesterday, a practice the day after a game that I gave up two terrible goals between my legs from a sharp angle. He brought us all to center ice, talked about the night before, gave it to us a little and then looked at me and said, "Pang ... if you let one puck get by you by going down in that ... BUTTERFLY ... you won't play for the next three weeks!!!!!!"
He watched me like a hawk afterward, but I didn't go down once. After practice he said, "See, Pang, if you stay on your feet and it goes in, it's a good goal. You're already small enough, don't make yourself any smaller." He played me the next game, and although it took a while for me to get it, I did become a more patient goalie. That in itself allowed me a chance to reach the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Killer was a fine player in his own right. He spent most of his career in the American Hockey League with the Springfield Indians, playing for the legendary Eddie Shore, the toughest player and coach in the history of hockey. He learned from Shore how to treat players like men and how to make them accountable both on the ice and in the community. Killer went on to play 25 games for the Los Angeles Kings in 1967-68 and scored the very first goal in their history.
I have been asked many times which coach I learned the most from. It's no contest.
When I coach kids today, I look back and think about how Killer handled (and still handles) certain situations. He's the type of coach who can get the most out of any player, whatever their personality. He looked at your strengths and used them to help the team. He made you feel like you were the difference maker in a game, no matter how small your role might have been. He lifted you up a notch when you needed it most and knocked you down one when he felt that was the right thing to do.
That's why Brian Kilrea is a Hall of Famer.
Darren Pang, a former goaltender with the Chicago Blackhawks and Ottawa 67's, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. His goalie rankings appear every other week in Net Effect.