Ben Kuzma: Dean Evason’s excellent adventure from Flin Flon to Wild head coach

Dean Evason talks shop with Devan Dubnyk at the Wild camp earlier this month. Brian Peterson / PNG

“You conduct yourself the same way and communicate the same way. Why would I stop communicating with a player because my title changes? You develop relationships and are fair but firm.” — Minnesota Wild head coach Dean Evason

Every summer, Dean Evason returns to his native Manitoba and heads to the cottage.

A priority on the annual to-do list for the Minnesota Wild head coach and his son is to dust off the 1972 Super Series tape and watch the exhilarating, eye-popping exploits of Bobby Clarke.

“By far my hero,” said Evason. “We’re both from Flin Flon and I tell the story that we were born in the same hospital. People would say: ‘How do you know that?’ And I would say: ‘There’s only one hospital!’

“We watch every single game of that series every summer. It was Bobby and the slashes and the way he played and the leader he was. Under-sized and gritty. He was somebody I looked up to.”

The Philadelphia Flyers’ centre was 23 and the final roster addition in the eight-game series. He played on the most effective line with Paul Henderson and Ron Ellis as Team Canadian claimed a dramatic 6-5 decision in the final game to finish 4-3-1.

Clarke had two goals and four assists in the series and also struck fear into the opposition. In Game 6, after some stick work from Soviet star Valeri Kharmalov, an agitated Clarke chased him down and broke the winger’s ankle with a slash.

“If I hadn’t learned to lay on a two-hander once in awhile, I’d never have left Flin Flon,” said Clarke.

Like Clarke, Evason was a 5-10 centre who excelled in the junior ranks with a 49-goal season as captain of the 1984 WHL champion Kamloops Junior Oilers. Unlike Clarke, Evason had to tailor his game in the NHL and 22 goals with the Hartford Whalers in 1986-87 was his highest output in 803 career games.

Paul Henderson (with helmet) and Bobby Clarke of Team Canada celebrate Henderson’s series-winning goal in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union at the Luzhniki Ice Palace in Moscow, Soviet Union on Sept. 28, 1972.

Evason left Flin Flon after two years and his playing stops in Winnipeg, Brandon, Cowichan, Spokane and Kamloops at the junior level — and Washington, Binghamton, Hartford, San Jose, Dallas and Calgary in the NHL — laid the foundation for a coaching career.

He was shaped by the players he played with and the coaches he played for, especially the late Bill LaForge in Kamloops, Bob Gainey in Dallas and Andy Murray with the Canadian national team.

His support system stretches to lifelong friend Trent Carroll, the chief operating officer of the Vancouver Canucks, who stays in contact with his confidant. They were the best man at each other’s weddings.

Evason moved to Brandon from Winnipeg and formed a quick and lasting bond with Carroll. They had played against each other in Winnipeg and Carroll was struck by Evason’s relentless and competitive nature and how driven he was to win at anything — as if his career path was already determined.

“In English class, we always had to write for 15 minutes in a journal,” recalled Carroll. “We were locker-mates and one day I peeked into his journal and he had written: ‘Some day, I’m going to play in the NHL.’ I remember giving him a hard time about it because thinking you’re going to play in the NHL when you’re 15 or 16 was obviously an aggressive goal.

“But you could see the commitment. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was strong and back then it was bigger hockey and grinding and tougher. He had good skill to get to the NHL, but he had to play a different role once he got there.”


Sunday | Game 1

Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild

7:30 p.m., Rogers Place, Edmonton, TV: SNET, Radio: SNET 650 AM

Evason tells a slightly different version of that story. There was no journal.

“It was written down on a piece of paper in my locker and I just said I was going to make the NHL and he jokes about that a lot,” laughed Evason. “He has as much drive as anybody. We compare notes all the time. We’re continually talking about our teams and motivating people and getting along.

“Business and hockey worlds are similar and it’s using coaching and team philosophy to set the culture. I pick from the business side and he picks from coaching side. We’re doing the same thing in coaching people and trying to get the best out of them.”

As Evason prepares to guide the Wild against the Canucks in the best-of-five qualifying series opener Sunday in Edmonton — he had the interim label removed July 13 after replacing the fired Bruce Boudreau on Feb. 10 — his is buoyed by what he has gleaned behind the bench.

Running the WHL show in Kamloops, Vancouver and Calgary, being an NHL assistant in Washington and Minnesota and directing an AHL bench in Milwaukee, has him prepped as a first-time NHL head coach at age 55. It showed in the Wild going 8-4-0 when he took over from Boudreau. The traditional defensive-minded Wild showed another side with 43 goals in that span, second most in the league, before the season was paused March 12 because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Evason has made the adjustment from assistant to head coach because he commands respect and doesn’t play mind games. It used to be the assistants wore the black or white hats and the coach kept to himself.

“I don’t believe in that at all,” stressed Evason. “You conduct yourself the same way and communicate the same way. Why would I stop communicating with a player because my title changes? You develop relationships and you are fair but firm.”

Evason learned his best lesson in Kamloops.

LaForge’s methods didn’t resonate with NHL players, but he shaped young lives at the junior level. He lasted just 20 games (4-14-2) in a quick promotion to the Canucks after the Junior Oilers advanced to the Memorial Cup tournament in 1984. However, he made a lasting impression on Evason.

The Junior Oilers were a success on the ice and in trouble off it. The Edmonton Oilers owned the club and Peter Pocklington was ready to sell the franchise to Swift Current.

However, the community rallied and raised $180,000 to purchase the remaining 66 per cent of the club and rename it the Blazers. Evason even did a door-to-door drive to help drum up support.

“We gave out season tickets and went to places to generate excitement in the malls and schools and just stuff that wasn’t going on at that time,” said Evason. “Coach LaForge wanted us to be in the community and be good people and get involved. 

“For him, it was more about being grounded as a person and getting to know the people who were sitting in the seats. He had a big part in that becoming an amazing franchise.”

Evason believes his experiences as a player and coach are invaluable. Today’s players are savvy. They’re well paid and even in a team game, they want to know on an individual basis what’s in it for them. So, how does Evason get the best out of the Wild?

“Honestly, I’ve been in a lot of different roles and in the middle to end of my career, I was a fourth-line grinding faceoff centre and then went to Europe and able to play there for a couple of more years,” said Evason.

Minnesota Wild coach Dean Evason prides himself in being a communicator with his players.

“I had a lot of different experiences and should use those — although the players don’t want to hear: ‘Well when I played or back in the day.’ But they don’t mind: ‘I was in your spot.’ Especially when you have to tell them they’re not playing, whether it’s numbers or because you’re the fifth centre.

“I can tell them: ‘I do know how you feel. I get it.’ If you embrace that and communicate it with your group, they will have respect for you.”

And if that doesn’t work, Evason can always dial up Carroll for perspective.

“His rise in Labatt’s from being a beer rep in Brandon to getting as high up as he could and then shifting gears to get into the NHL is because he’s a great communicator,” said Evason. “He has always had that ability to get along, but still get the point and opinions across. And he’s available.

“I talk to Travis (Green) and he talks to him all the time. How many NHL coaches talk to a COO just to have a chat?

Evason was a 32-year-old captain of a star-studded 1997 world championship team that claimed gold with Murray at the helm. Green was also on that team and the mutual admiration will carry over to the qualifying series matchup.

“The way we were playing as a group is exciting to us as much as how we play the game,” said Evason. “In the NHL, there’s not a big discrepancy between teams. There are special players, but we all know after that everyone else is pretty darn close.

“If there’s a tangible that sets us apart, it’s how we play together. But we match up well with Vancouver and we’re so similar. It should be a fun series.”

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