By GREGG DRINNAN
Don Hay is coming home.
And who knows . . . the Kamloops Fire Department may still be holding his job for him.
Hay, 60, began his coaching career with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers in 1986, while he was a Kamloops firefighter. Ultimately, he took a leave of absence to pursue his coaching career; he never did go back to firefighting.
Today, though, he will be back in Kamloops as the new — new old? — head coach of the Blazers.
Hay, the second-winningest coach in WHL history, is leaving the Vancouver Giants after 10 seasons as their head coach to return to the Blazers.
Hay took over from Tom Renney as the Blazers head coach after the 1991-92 season and guided the team for three seasons, going 42-28-2, 50-16-6 and 52-14-6, and winning the 1994 and 1995 Memorial Cup championships.
He left after the second Memorial Cup title, choosing to join the NHL’s Calgary Flames as an assistant coach. He spent one season as head coach of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes and one with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks as an assistant.
Hay was back in the WHL in 1998-99, spending two seasons as head coach of the Tri-City Americans.
He then spent most of 2000-01 as head coach of the Calgary Flames, followed by three seasons as head coach of the AHL’s Utah Grizzlies.
He joined the Giants for the 2004-05 season, as the third head coach in franchise history, following Milan Dragicevic and Dean Evason. Under Hay, the Giants won the WHL title in 2006 and the Memorial Cup in 2007 as the host team after they lost the WHL final to the Medicine Hat Tigers.
However, in the last four seasons, the Giants missed the playoffs once (2012-13) and were first-round casualties each of the other times. This season, they were swept by the Portland Winterhawks, who are to open the WHL’s championship final against the visiting Edmonton Oil Kings on Saturday night.
Still, the Giants won at least 40 games six times with Hay, whose 609 WHL career coaching victories trail only Ken Hodge’s 742.
Hay had one year left on his contract with the Giants, who chose not to hold him to it or request compensation from Kamloops. Tom Gaglardi, the Blazers’ majority owner, approached Vancouver majority owner Ron Toigo about a week ago and asked for permission to speak with Hay.
“I’ve always made a point that I’m not going to stand in the way of what anybody wants to do regardless of what their contract says,” Toigo told Elliott Pap of the Vancouver Sun. “Don said he was comfortable with going home and they offered him a pretty good deal. I told him: ‘Great, I’m happy for you, I appreciate everything you did for us.’
“Ten years is a long time with one team and maybe it was time for a change for everybody. I think it’s a good scenario, although it kind of came out of left field. We certainly weren’t planning this a month ago.”
When the Giants start the search for a replacement, they will be looking for someone to take them at least through the 2015-16 season. The WHL will play host to the 2016 Memorial Cup tournament and Toigo has said the Giants plan on bidding for it.
Hay is the third-winningest head coach in Blazers history, his 144 victories in Kamloops behind only Ken Hitchcock (291) and Guy Charron (148).
Charron finished up this season, when the Blazers finished 14-53-5, good only for the poorest season in franchise history. Charron replaced Dave Hunchak on Jan. 12.
Hunchak, in his first season as head coach after working as associate coach alongside Charron for two seasons, left the team on Jan. 10 while it was in Spokane. The Blazers later said Hunchak was on a leave of absence.
The team has yet to clarify Hunchak’s situation, although it’s believed the two parties reached a contract settlement of some kind last month. Hunchak had been signed through the 2014-15 season.
In returning to the Blazers, Hay will be rekindling a relationship with Craig Bonner, who is the team’s general manager. Bonner was the Giants’ assistant coach/assistant GM when he signed as the Blazers’ GM in the summer of 2008. Bonner also played one season (1992-93) under Hay with the Blazers.
So what happened to the relationship between Hay and the Giants?
Here’s Steve Ewen, who covers the Giants for the Vancouver Province:
“The Giants . . . obviously felt he wasn’t the right guy for that 2016 Memorial Cup push. There was an apparent disconnect between player development, led by Hay, and player recruitment, led by general manager Scott Bonner.
“Hay wanted to continue to play a crash-and-bang style, but the Giants were bringing in smaller, puck-possession skill guys.”
Ewen also pointed out that in recent seasons the Giants “have had several players ask to be traded.”
That included, Ewen wrote, “2011 sixth-rounder Taylor Vickerman, 2010 first-rounder Anthony Ast, 2009 second-rounder Matt Bellerive and 2009 third-rounder Blake Orban. There were others, including veteran Craig Cunningham in 2010-11. Those were all tied to Hay.”
Interestingly, Bellerive, who was traded by the Giants to the Red Deer Rebels prior to the 2012-13 season, was dealt by Kamloops to Vancouver on Thursday. The Blazers had acquired him from Red Deer on Jan. 9.
According to Ewen, Bellerive had asked the Giants to trade him after Hay “made him a scratch on opening night” of the 2012-13 season.
In return for Bellerive, the Blazers got a 2014 sixth-round bantam draft pick and a fourth-rounder in 2015. The Blazers selected F Kyle Bosch of Kindersley, Sask., with the sixth-round pick on Thursday.
In 29 games with the Blazers, Bellerive, from North Vancouver, had 19 points, nine of them goals. He is heading into his 20-year-old season.
In another deal, the Blazers reacquired D Brady Gaudet, 20, from Red Deer, giving up a third-round pick in yesterday’s draft. Gaudet began his career with the Blazers, who selected him 10th overall in the 2009 bantam draft, before being traded to Red Deer in October 2012 for a third-round pick in the 2013 draft.
In 241 career games, Gaudet, who is from Redvers, Sask., has 85 points, including 17 goals. He played 117 of those games with Kamloops, putting up 34 points, seven of them goals.