Rich Pilon shared his thoughts on coaching and experiences of getting to play in the NHL after being drafted as a midget player, as he spoke via Zoom to the Weyburn Rotary Club on Thursday.
Pilon lives in Saskatoon in the off-season, and as the head coach and general manager of the Weyburn Red Wings, he is preparing for a new hockey season in the SJHL, which is set to start play on Sept. 24.
As an NHLer, he played 15 years for the New York Islanders and the Rangers, and his son has been drafted by the Washington Capitals.
As a coach and GM of Weyburn’s Junior A hockey team, he notes there are some big differences in how players are coached now compared to when he played hockey, and he laid out his desire to be the best coach he can be.
“Being an ex-pro guy, I always tell my players I want to do everything I can that I didn’t like as a player, and just be a better communicator with the parents and players and be as black-and-white as I can with them, out of respect for me and them,” he said, noting they live in a different era now than when he played.
“A lot of players are just more educated than when I grew up and played hockey. My dad coached me for a long time. … In today’s game, kids skate basically year-round. A lot of kids have that drive, and it might be good or bad. Some agree, some don’t agree, but I’m pretty neutral on it,” said Pilon.
He pointed out he was one of two players who were drafted into the NHL out of midget hockey at age 15. “I just wanted to play in the NHL, and sometimes ignorance is bliss, and that’s really what it was for me. I didn’t know, and my dad didn’t know, the pecking order or the depth chart of a midget triple-A or junior hockey,” he explained.
The challenge in coaching today, added Pilon, “is trying to treat these young men as much as I can all the same. They’re all different, but when it comes to a hockey team and winning, it comes to my getting them to believe in themselves and in each other and in the coach. That’s where the really good coaches have success, because when I coach … in today’s hockey world it’s kind of, ‘what do I get if I do that?’ You’re always in negotiations with them. You can’t rule with an iron fist any more, the kid will just quit, and if you’re caught in a lie, you’re done, you’ve lost the room. So you have to be really honest with them, which is sometimes hard because you’re telling them stuff they don’t want to hear, and that’s the hard part of coaching.”
Relating how he came to Weyburn, which he admitted he didn’t very much about prior to coming here, he noted that a former Weyburn coach and educator, Darren Larson, told him he should apply for the Red Wings coaching position.
Pilon did apply, and found it difficult when he came and several people associated with the team quit, including coaching staff and former GM Ronnie Rumball.
“It’s all worked out, and I enjoy coaching,” he said, noting he will be bringing in players he’s been able to recruit for the upcoming season, with only one or two players left from when he first came in 2019.
“There’s been a bit of a revolving door, which was not the plan,” he said, noting that he’s had to sell himself and sell Weyburn as a good place to come play hockey.
The result will be a good team this fall, he said. “If you see us play, you’ll see a very different class of players. They’re players that could have gone elsewhere, but my strength is recruiting.”
Pilon noted the Red Wings have a lot of history as a team, but the level of success has fallen off in the last few years, so he wants to get the team back on that road again.
“The job of myself and the coaching staff is to create a team that’s not only good on the ice, but is good around the community,” he said, adding there are only two things he cares about: “I care about how hard you work, and I care about how you treat other people. If you do these two things, you will never have a problem with me.”
Pilon added that he wants to create a classy organization, as the players are not just representing themselves, they’re representing the team and their families, and the name on the back of the jersey.
He said later the Red Wings will have some 33 or 34 players come to training camp this fall, but they will only have room for 24 or 25 guys on the roster, “so we’ve got our work cut out for us. We’re going to be competitive, I believe we’re going to be a playoff team.”