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Hay brings same energy, drive to Canada's junior hockey team 17 years later

12/21/2011 11:25 EST | Updated 02/20/2012 05:12 EST
Asked to describe his coach in three words, Brendan Gallagher almost makes it.

"Competitive, knowledgeable, competitive," says Gallagher, then continues.

"He wants to win more than any other coach."

There is certainly a tirelessness about Don Hay, who coaches Gallagher on both the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Giants and the Canadian junior men's hockey hockey team.

During practice, Hay moves quickly, covers a lot of ice and continually bangs his stick on the ice. He reacts to his players' successes or failures during drills with a gesture or a grimace.

Seventeen years after coaching Canada to gold at the 1995 world junior championship in Red Deer, Alta., Hay is stepping behind Canada's bench again with the 2012 edition of the team.

Canada opens the world junior championship Sunday in Edmonton versus Finland.

Hay can join Brent Sutter, Craig Hartsburg and Terry Simpson as the only men to coach Canada to gold twice.

Those men did it in back-to-back years. The long interval between Hay's stints is by his own choosing.

A successful junior coach with three Memorial Cup titles, as well as some NHL coaching experience, Hay would have been a leading candidate for the job in recent years if he'd thrown his hat into the ring.

But Hay chose 2012, when the tournament returns to Alberta and the scene of his success in '95.

"Being in Canada first and foremost, I feel comfortable coaching in Canada and in a North American rink," Hay said.

"I still have a passion to coach and I really desired to coach Canada again. I thought it was the right opportunity. I'm not getting any younger."

He may not be, but Hay is a fit 57-year-old. He's an avid runner who enters the Vancouver half-marathon every year. Hay has also not tired of challenging teenage hockey players to become better.

"He loves to see improvements in his players and that I think, along with his conditioning, is why he always seems like he has energy," says Ryan Huska, who is both Hay's assistant coach on the Canadian team and a former player of Hay's on the Kamloops Blazers.

"He really does love teaching kids and young players," Huska continued. "He likes to get them to progress and challenges them to move on to the next level and that's what drives him."

Hay, a former minor pro player, left the Kamloops fire department to join the Blazers coaching staff as an assistant from 1986 to 1992. During that apprenticeship, he was an assistant to current Edmonton Oilers head coach Tom Renney.

"Hay is well organized, well prepared and very thorough," Renney said. "He's very demanding and tough, no question about that, but very fair and equitable in how he treats people.

"There are no hidden agendas. A player doesn't have to leave a conversation with Donny asking himself, 'What did he mean by that?' You're going to get the goods."

Hay became head coach of the Blazers in 1993. After winning back-to-back Memorial Cups in 1994 and 1995, as well as winning gold at the world juniors in '95, the natural progression for a successful junior coach is the NHL.

Hay coached the Phoenix Coyotes to a 38-37-0-7 record and got them into the first round of playoffs in 1996-97. But he was turfed after just one season.

After a couple of seasons back in the WHL with the Tri-City Americans, Hay's second NHL stint was even shorter. The Calgary Flames fired him just 68 games into the 2000-01 season.

Hay won't say the NHL didn't give him a legitimate chance, but recalls how shocked he was by the lack of patience he was shown.

"That was my hardest thing when I left juniors. I didn't understand that," he said. "And that really hurt I think because you think you did a good job.

"You think you're doing the right things and you should get rewarded for doing the right things, but you don't. I know the saying is 'A coach is hired to get fired' and it took me a while to figure that out."

He's not in a rush to try the NHL again and why should he? Hay has job stability as head coach of the Vancouver Giants, which is a model WHL franchise in a world-class city.

The Giants have never finished under .500 or out of the playoffs in Hay's seven seasons at the helm. They won the Memorial Cup in 2007 as hosts after finishing third in that tournament the previous year.

The franchise has a wealthy majority owner in Ron Toigo, and some famous minority owners in Gordie Howe, Pat Quinn and singer Michael Buble. The Giants extended Hay's contract last year until 2015.

Hay turned down an assistant coach's job with the Oilers last year. He didn't pursue the same opportunity with the Winnipeg Jets this year because he'd committed to coaching Canada at the world junior tournament.

"I think I'd like to have the opportunity to go back (to the NHL), but if it doesn't come it's not going to affect me," Hay said. "It's got to be a pretty good job to go to for me to leave this one."

Huska says a secret to Hay's success as a junior coach is developing leaders on his teams who set examples for young players.

"They would help pull the other guys along," Huska explained. "He always had a way to transition a new group up. They understood what he wanted and how he wanted his teams to play."

"If they didn't fit in or play the proper way, the room would take care of it and if it didn't, Don would."

Hay and his wife Vicki have three children. Darrell, a defenceman, tried out for the Canadian junior team in both 1999 and 2000, but didn't make the squad. He's currently playing hockey in the Czech Republic.

Their daughters Ashley and Angela are twins. Angela has two children and Hay counts spending time with his grandchildren as one of his favourite things to do away from the rink.

When Hay coached Canada in 1995, he had the best players in the land available to him because an NHL lockout extending into January. He famously cut Brett Lindros from the team because he felt the big forward wasn't the right fit for his team.

Hays says the players on the Canadian junior team today are the same as in '95. They grow up watching the tournament on television and seeing the emotion that so often drives Canada to gold. The players dream of doing the same.

And make no mistake, Hay wants the gold just as much in 2012 as he did in 1995.

"You can just see how badly he wants to win," Gallagher says. "Whenever he's behind that bench, you sense it as players and it makes you want to win just as bad.

"When your coach is that competitive and he's trying just as hard for you, you want to do the same for him."

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With files from Robin Brownlee in Edmonton.

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