TORONTO– Nearing the end of Dallas Eakins career as a pro hockey player, he had a hunch that one day he would be behind the bench as a boss.
“I kind of always saw the game through the coach’s eyes,” Eakins said. “It was a natural progression for me. As my career went along as a player, and as I got older. I was playing in the minors and I took great interest in the younger players.”
Eakins final season as a player was in the 2003/04 season when he suited up for 68 games with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose (Vancouver affiliate.) As the teams Captain, he played a role in the development of current Canucks stars Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows.
It was his 16th year as a defenseman but perhaps more unforeseen; it was his 18th professional team.
Drafted 10th round in 1985 by the Washington Capitals, Eakins would finish his junior career with the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Peterborough Petes before turning pro in 1988. He entered the AHL with the Baltimore Skipjacks, a team that no longer exists, and the following season he would play for the minor league affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets, the Moncton Hawks. Coaching the Hawks at that time was current Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
In 1992, three long seasons after turning pro, Eakins would make his National Hockey League (NHL) debut with the Jets. Suiting up for 14 games, he would register two assists and 38 penalty minutes. Another rookie that season on the Jets was Teemu Selanne who scored 76 goals and led the team with 132 points.
Over the next decade, NHL stops included the Florida Panthers, St Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs (1998/99,) New York Islanders and finally the Calgary Flames. With each one of those franchises, most of his time was spent with their minor league affiliates. He would only play 120 games in the NHL, never scoring a goal and registering nine assists. However he did play 1002 games total if you include 609 in the AHL and 273 in the International Hockey League (IHL.)
“There’s not much that a player is going through at this level that I haven’t seen or experienced before,” Eakins said when discussing his similarities to today’s players. “It’s hard sitting on the other side of the desk letting a guy know that he’s going down or that at the end of the season were not going to have (him) back because I’ve sat on the other side as a player and know what it’s like to be told those words.”
For the last two seasons, Eakins has made those calls and sat at those desks as Head Coach of the Toronto Marlies. Not only does he decide when a player will be sent down, he has earned the trust of his bosses to recommend who gets promoted.
“There hasn’t been one time in my two years here that I haven’t been asked who I think it is. I can’t remember it being a guy I haven’t recommended.”
Like any other coach who has earned his right to make an impact on the game, Eakins first broke into the role as an assistant coach, working with Paul Maurice and the 2005/06 Marlies. The following season he would go with Maurice to don the bench at the Air Canada Centre coaching the Leafs. After two seasons there, Wilson was brought in to replace Maurice. Wilson brought Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler, leaving majority of Maurice’s crew unemployed. Randy Ladouceur and Steve McKichan were let go however Eakins was offered the opportunity for his first head coaching job; the one that exists today.
“From Brian (Burke) to Dave Nonis to David Poulin to myself and the rest of the coaching staff, we see the game very similar.”
Although spending the beginning of his coaching career with Maurice, much of the credit for Eakins coaching abilities goes to the late Roger Neilson. Eakins first played under Neilson in 1993 as a member of the Florida Panthers but as they both grew older they would stay in contact, Neilson acting as mentor.
“Roger was like a second father to me,” Eakins said when reflecting back on their relationship. “I spent countless hours and days at his cottage and his house going over tape and going over hockey.”
Eakins leads by example with his work ethic and dedication. Just last year he spent eight months training for the Leadville 100, a bike race so gruelling that it took over 11 hours to complete and consisted of 160 km worth of hills and high altitude. Although he never won the race, Eakins did win both a Turner Cup and Calder Cup with the Chicago Wolves (Atlanta affiliate) in the late 90’s and believes that experiencing victory is a must.
“There’s nothing better than winning and as much as we’re here to develop prospects to the NHL, winnings a big part of it. If we can get these guys in the playoffs and let them experience winning it just furthers their development,” Eakins stated when talking about his coaching philosophy and his goal with this year’s Marlies.
And just like his final playing days in Manitoba, his priority is still the youngsters.
“Hopefully one day I’d love to win a Stanley cup as a coach but right now I’m not looking at that. I’m trying to get as many of these players up to the NHL as possible.”