Former Saskatchewan Huskies captain inducted as coaching career still unfolding

Former Saskatchewan Huskies forward Willie Desjardins is being recognized for his play that laid the foundation for an accomplished coaching career at hockey’s highest levels.

The Climax, Sask., native was announced as an inaugural inductee into the Canada West Hall of Fame on Feb. 7.

“It does come as a surprise. There’s so many good people in Canada West … it’s an incredible group of athletes and administrators,” Desjardins said.

“It does feel good… You’re just not good enough to win by yourself. And we had a really, really great group of guys. (Former Huskies head coach) Dave King brought that group together.”

Desjardins noted how lucky he was to play with the Huskies’ men’s hockey program during his student-athlete career.

“I think my favorite memory was just how competitive it was,” Desjardins reminisced.

“And how our group, my last few years, they set the standard pretty high in that we went into every game expecting to find a way to win.”

Saskatchewan dominated Canada West hockey from 1981 to 1983, posting a 61-27 combined record in the regular season and playoffs.

The Dogs advanced to the finals of the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU), now known as U Sports, in 1981 and 1982 only to lose to the Moncton Aigles Bleus both times.

Desjardins then captained the Huskies to their only national championship in 1983 after beating the Concordia Stingers 6-2. Saskatchewan’s captain was named tournament MVP after setting a championship record with 11 points in three games.

The Huskies’ dynasty from 1980-83 was also inducted, as a team, into the Hall of Fame.

Desjardins transitioned to coaching soon after graduation.

“I would have had opportunities to play in Europe and I went over and played in Europe a little bit,” he said.

“But Dave King certainly was a good mentor. I saw what he did to a team and the impact he had. And, I liked being in the game and I just thought that (coaching) might be something I’d enjoy.”

His coaching journey escalated over the years with tenures in the Canada West, Western Hockey League (WHL), American Hockey League (AHL) and National Hockey League (NHL).

On a world stage, he was an assistant coach for Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the 2009 World Junior championships and head coach the following year to capture silver.

Another major achievement came when he helmed Team Canada — along with assistant coach Dave King — to a bronze medal performance at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

“That (bronze) was a big moment. I’ve always loved my country and it’s always been great. I’ve had the chance to coach the World Juniors and they were both big events,” Desjardins said.

“Both things are really gratifying. When you get to be involved with a great group. The Olympics was great, but there were a lot of other experiences too that have been outstanding.”

These days, Desjardins can be found back behind a WHL bench.

He began his second tour with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the 2019-20 season as head coach and general manager. The team currently sits in fifth place out of 22 WHL teams.

“It’s going great. It’s good, it’s a really difficult league. There’s lots of good teams. Again, the competition’s good every night,” Desjardins said.

“I enjoy working with players that are looking to get better, that are excited about the game.”

“I’ve always said it doesn’t matter the level, it’s how hard guys are competing, like how much of themselves they’re putting into the game… It’s just always great when people give everything they have.”

No matter where he coaches, the 63-year-old said his goal remains the same.

“(To) win. Wherever I’m at… I’m not worried about where I’m at. I enjoy where I’m at. If something else comes, I’ll look at it,” Desjardins said.

“But I certainly enjoy (Medicine Hat) and winning’s fun… So I think that’s your goal. Wherever you’re at is to find ways for that team to win.”

The Hall of Fame was established last year with the 2019-20 season marking the 100th anniversary of the first university sport championship in Western Canada. To commemorate the milestone, 100 inductees are being enshrined over 100 days.

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