By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Paul Gagne era with the Timmins Rock has come to an end.
The elder statesman of the NOJHL’s coaching fraternity confirmed after his team’s Game 4 exit from the playoffs Wednesday night he is calling it a career.
Gagne has turned his general manager duties over to Rock director Kevin Peever and the latter has begun the search to find a head coach for the franchise.
There have been many highlights over the course of Gagne’s 19-year coaching career, but there are a few that stand out for the 55-year-old Iroquois Falls native.
“In 2009-10, we played in the Dudley Hewitt Cup tournament in Sault Ste. Marie and we only lost seven games that season,” he said.
“We also hosted the Dudley Hewitt Cup in Iroquois Falls (2007-08) and that was also a highlight, but to be honest with you when I get an email or a text message from one of the players I coached who has become a lawyer or a teacher, he has gotten married and he has three kids, those are the real highlights.
“A couple of years ago, when we were still in Iroquois Falls, we had an alumni game with a couple of teams of players. You are looking at 40 ex-players, who live in the area.”
Gagne, who played 390 games in the National Hockey League with the Colorado Rockies, New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders and also played in Europe, began his career as a bench boss during the 1996-97 campaign with EHC Biel-Bienne, of the National League B in Switzerland.
He remained with Biel-Bienne through the 1999-2000 season and then returned home to Iroquois Falls to take over as coach of the NOJHL Jr. Eskis (formerly the Timmins Golden Bears).
In 2002-03 the franchise was rebranded the Abitibi Eskimos and Gagne remained at the helm for three more seasons before returning to Europe to coach HC Ajoie of the National League B in Switzerland, during the 2005-06 campaign.
Following that one-year European sabbatical, Gagne was back behind the bench of the Eskimos in time for the start of the 2006-07 NOJHL season and he stayed with the franchise as it made the move to Timmins where it was rebranded as the Timmins Rock.
“Hockey has been good to me,” said Gagne, who has been involved in the sport since he put on his first pair of skates as a four year old.
“I left home at 16 years old to play in Windsor and it has been hockey ever since.”
So why leave the game now?
“When you have been doing it for this long, you need a change,” he said.
“The other reason is my wife (Brenda) is retiring, so we will take some time and do a little more travelling. We are going on vacation in September and I have never been on vacation in September. It’s been hockey since I was four years old. Brenda has been teaching for all these years, so September has always been out of the question.
“We are looking forward to it.”
The Gagnes have a pair of children, Steven who lives in Timmins and Martine who lives in Ottawa, but there are no grandkids just yet.
Could Gagne envision himself returning behind the bench of a Novice or Atom team at some point in the future is he becomes a grandpa?
“I think I would be content driving them to the rink,” he said.
Even though he is retiring, Gagne will not be totally abandoning the ice.
“I will still be running my hockey school (Gagne Hockey Development Camp) at the McIntyre Arena,” he said.
“This year, it will be running from Aug. 8-11. It is just four days and we are looking at staying around for a year or so and then we will see what happens.”
Gagne doesn’t expect to have too much trouble finding things to do to fill his days now that he is officially retired.
“I plan to do a little bit more golfing,” he said.
“I love to golf and I love to fish. We do a lot of fishing.”
Captain Jordan Rendle is one of the Rock players who has enjoyed his time playing for Gagne the past two seasons.
“It was an absolute honour to play under Paul,” he said.
“He is the best coach I have ever had. He is an unbelievable guy on and off the ice.
“Who knows who to poke at, what to say to the right guys and how to work a team. I have never seen anybody know each personality on the team so well.”
Peever has served on the Rock board of directors for the past two seasons and he will continue in that role, as well as holding the GM’s title.
A goaltender in his playing days, he spent three years (1995-96 to 1997-98) playing with the Brockville Braves, of the CJHL.
Thursday was Peever’s first day as GM of the Rock, but he was already thinking about the 2017-18 campaign.
“Paul did a great job as coach and general manager of this hockey club and we have some big shoes to fill, with the departure of nine 20-year-old veterans,” he said.
“We have started the recruiting process already and once we are looking forward to June 1, when we can begin signing players.
“We have people who have been watching prospects for us and we have been discussing with them players who might be interested in coming to Timmins and playing for the Rock.
“The feedback has been positive and it helps that we have such a great community behind us. We have the highest attendance in the league and what player wouldn’t want to play in that environment?”
Even though the Rock will be losing nine key veterans, they have a potentially solid nucleus around which to build a team for 2017-18.
“That really has a lot to do with Paul’s previous recruitment of players,” Peever said.
“It wasn’t all about just getting 19 and 20 year olds on the club. He was able to balance things out with some great young talent and we are hoping the players who are eligible return.”
Rock players eligible to return include forwards Cole Gilligan, Wayne Mathieu, Stewart Parnell, Jacob Shankar, Nicholas Hway, Alexandre Brisson and Bain Cunningham, blue-liners Jared Hester, James Watier and Grant McClellan, as well as goalie Jeff Veitch.
In addition, affiliate players Evan Kentish-Stack, up front, and Cameron Svec, on the back end, logged significant minutes during the regular season and playoffs and made positive impressions.”
As the outgoing GM, Gagne has provided a lot of assistance as Peever settles into his new job.
“He has provided me with a lot of information and a lot of material and I believe he will be a great mentor,” he said.
One of Peever’s first responsibilities, of course, will be to select a new coaching staff.
“We will be putting a notice on our website indicating the kind of qualities we are looking for in a coach and it will also be going out to a number of places in the hockey community,” he said.
“We have received quite a few resumes already from people who were aware Paul would be leaving and who are very interested in the position. Along with the board, I will be sitting down to see who would be the best fit for this role.
“We are looking for a coaching staff that can mentor our players, teaching them great hockey values and off-ice values.
“We are hoping the staff we select can work with us to bring a championship to Timmins.”
Peever is hoping to have a new coaching staff in place in the next three weeks to a month.
“That might be pushing it, but it would be nice if we could introduce them at the upcoming (Schumacher Lions Club) Sportsman Show, which runs from April 22 to 23, at the McIntyre Arena,” he said.
“If not, we want to have them in place soon after since they will have to work with me on building our team.”
The status of Gagne’s assistant coaches — James Daschuk, Marc Bisson and Eric Paquette — remains up in the air until the team settles on a new head coach.
“We hope they express interest, with possibly one of them applying to be the head coach,” Peever said.
“These guys have done an excellent job for us over the past two years and they are all local guys who have come up in the hockey community and they are very knowledgeable.”