(Courtesy of John Wustrow) — For Derek Laxdal, the wild journey of the past year started months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit or coronavirus was even featured daily in headlines.
The former Idaho Steelheads and Edmonton Oil Kings’ coach says Dec. 10, 2019, is the day that “turned my life upside down, in a positive way.”
More than nine months after a shakeup in the Dallas Stars organization made him an assistant coach in the National Hockey League, Laxdal is sitting behind the bench during the Stanley Cup Final.
The Stars got out to a fast start in Game 1 of the Cup Final on Saturday, winning 4-1 over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Edmonton before dropping game two by the same score Monday night.
“I’m going to cherish the experience, it’s not everyday you get to a final, whatever league you’re coaching in,” said Laxdal, who spent several seasons playing for the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings. “You have to embrace it all. This is the center stage here in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s a special time, we’re playing through COVID right now and I think more and more people are watching sports and the Stanley Cup Final, because they can’t go anywhere. To be a part of this and to represent the Dallas Stars, I think it’s pretty incredible.”
Laxdal, who coached the Stars’ ECHL affiliate in Idaho from 2005-10, winning a Kelly Cup title in 2007 and reaching the Finals again in 2010, began the season as the head coach of the American Hockey League’s Texas Stars. But when Dallas fired Jim Montgomery two months into the season due to unprofessional conduct, it started a chain of events that pulled Laxdal up to the big league.
Montgomery’s assistant coach, Rick Bowness, was named the interim head coach, and Laxdal was promoted to fill the assistant coaching spot. Another former Idaho Steelheads coach, Neil Graham, assumed the role of head coach in Texas.
“It was a goal of mine to be a head coach or an assistant coach in the National Hockey League,” Laxdal said. “To come in the fashion that it did, getting the call that they were making a change and you have to get up to Dallas ASAP, from that point your life is in a whirlwind. I had to pick up and go and leave my wife in Austin (Texas). You never thought you’d get to the National Hockey League in those circumstances. But at the end of the day you’re here, things are going well and hopefully we can continue on with the success we’ve had moving forward.”
Prior to joining Dallas, Laxdal had plenty of success in his previous coaching stints. In addition to his two Kelly Cup Final appearances in Idaho, he won two Western Hockey League titles and the 2014 Memorial Cup championships with the Edmonton Oil Kings. In 2018 he led Texas to the Calder Cup Final, coming within one win of the title before losing to the Toronto Marlies in Game 7.
He also won the Memorial Cup and Calder Cup as a player, but despite spending parts of five seasons in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders, this will be his first time being part of the Stanley Cup Final in any role.
Making the occasion all the more special will be the fact that he’s coached in the finals in all three levels of the Dallas Stars organization, an organization he’s been a part of for 11 seasons.
“I was very blessed, in Idaho we got a few players through the affiliation and in the five years I was there we had five playoff seasons, winning the championship in ‘07 and going to the finals in ‘10,” Laxdal said. “Then in Austin, with the Texas Stars, it’s a very good organization. They do a great job of developing players and bringing up kids through the system with drafts or free agents. To go to the finals the year we did was pretty special, as is getting to the Stanley Cup Final here in the NHL.”
Dallas had been on a skid before the NHL was shut down in March, going 0-4-2 in the six games prior to COVID-19 suspending the league.
Once inside the Edmonton bubble, the Stars went 1-2-0 in round robin play, then started the playoffs falling behind 2-1 in a series against Calgary. But after rattling off three straight wins to beat the Flames, Dallas has been on a roll.
The Stars beat the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, with unlikely hero Joel Kiviranta recording a hat trick, including the overtime winner, in Game 7. They beat the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference Final behind strong goaltending play by Anton Khudobin.
“The brand of hockey we play, and our team identity, has served us well in this bubble and in this playoff race,” Laxdal said. “The guys cherish it, buy into it and we’ve had success with it.”
The Stars have been in the bubble for almost two months now. Most of their time has been spent between Rogers Place and the JW Marriott, where the team is staying. An overhead walkway connects the arena with the hotel.
With a little bit of time off after eliminating the Golden Knights on Monday, the Stars took a team trip to play golf on Tuesday, a trip that Laxdal said felt like “breaking out of jail.”
It’s been one of the few times teams have been able to get outside the bubble during the playoffs. It’s all part of a system system bubble that has seemingly worked, as the NHL hasn’t had any positive COVID-19 tests from inside its bubbles in Edmonton or Toronto.
“At the end of the day, we’ve been here six or seven weeks and there’s only a couple weeks left, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Laxdal said. “I think that’s going to really ramp up the Stanley Cup Final once it gets started.”