KENNEWICK -- When the Western Hockey League Coach of the Year nominees were announced last month, Tri-City Americans coach Jim Hiller found himself in the running with a familiar face -- Pat Conacher of the Regina Pats.
Hiller and Conacher were Los Angeles Kings teammates during the 1992-93 season.
"That's the hockey world," Hiller said. "It's a small circle -- you really start connecting the dots. You talk about seven degrees of separation. In hockey, it's more like two or three."
Hiller was a rookie when he joined the Kings out of Northern Michigan University. Conacher already was in the L.A. lineup.
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"I have a lot of respect for him as a player and a coach," said Hiller, whose team will open the Western Conference semifinals Friday night against the Spokane Chiefs. "He is a tremendous person. I'm not surprised at the success Regina had.
"My first training camp, he'd been a pro for a few years. He wasn't the most talented guy, but he worked, worked and worked. I wish some of that would have rubbed off on me."
Hiller was with the Kings for half a season before being traded to the Detroit Red Wings. He does not recall playing on a line with Conacher.
"I went up and down. I'm sure at one point I was with him," Hiller said. "He was the same guy every day. Like (Tri-City forward Justin) Feser, you know what you are going to get -- his best. It was like Groundhog Day with him, and that's difficult to do. He earned it all, too."
This season, as a first-year WHL head coach, Conacher took the Pats to the playoffs after they missed out the previous three years. They lost to the Moose Jaw Warriors in the first round.
"It's a privilege to coach in the WHL," Conacher said. "My two assistants (Malcolm Cameron and Josh Dixon) are better coaches than me. Chad (general manager Lang) allowed me to hire two really good people. We had to establish a culture here, and the players are buying into what we are selling."
Hiller and Conacher faced each other for the first time when Tri-City beat Regina 6-1 on Nov. 26 at Toyota Center.
"They have a great team," Conacher said of the Americans. "But if all that skill doesn't play together, you aren't going to have success. Jim is a big part of that. He is a humble guy, and that's why I like him so much. He can touch players and get the most out of them. He has a very high hockey IQ, and he is a good coach. I'm happy for him."
Conacher remembers when Hiller joined the Kings right out of college.
"When we brought him in, he was very skilled, had good hands and had success early there with us," Conacher said. "He worked his way up to the top six forwards and was learning the game. But with a lot of young guys, when he started to struggle, he didn't know what to do. We ended up trading him to Detroit."
Also on the L.A. Kings roster that season was Wayne Gretzky.
"When I left my dorm room, I had a poster of Gretzky on my wall," Hiller said. "The next day, I was in L.A. with him. There are superstars, and then there are guys like him. Even the superstars put him on a different level. He was just so smart. He understood the game like no one else did."
Conacher's ties to the Americans go deeper than Hiller.
Conacher played for the Billings Bighorns from 1977-79 with former Tri-City coach Don Nachbaur, who now coaches Spokane. Six years and three franchise moves later, the Bighorns became the Americans.
"Just goes to show how old I am," said Conacher, 52. "Funny how the game goes around. Don is a tremendous coach in this league. We were young guys trying to make our way. We had a great start in Billings, and we had great crowds. I thought that would be one American team that would be around a long time."
* Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org