The first game Don Hay coached in the Western Hockey League was a loss. Friday, he won his 600th game behind the bench as the Vancouver Giants beat the Kamloops Blazers 6-2.
“That was really special,” said Hay, a native of Kamloops, British Columbia. “After the game, I told the players the dressing room we were in that night on Friday was the same dressing room I coached in my three years in Kamloops. That’s where I coached my first game. The first game we lost and Friday we won. We won a lot in between.”
Hay joins Ken Hodge (Edmonton, Portland, 742 wins) and Lorne Molleken (Moose, Regina, Saskatoon, 616 wins) in the 600 Club.
Hay got his coaching start in the WHL as an assistant with the Kamloops Blazers under Ken Hitchcock and Tom Renney. After six seasons, Hay took the reins at the start of the 1992-93 season. So to get win No. 600 back where he started, meant a lot.
“Obviously it was a good feeling being in Kamloops,” Hay said. “Number one, because it’s my hometown, the team I started coaching with and my family and friends were all there. There’s a lot of reasons why it was really important, and the biggest reason is the guys competed at a high level and that’s what you want as a coach, to have your team compete at a high level every time they play.”
Hay, who will turn 60 on Feb. 13, has coached in the WHL, the AHL and the NHL over the last 20-plus years. He has no plans of slowing down.
“I love what I do,” Hay said. “I enjoy going to work everyday. I love the aspect of working with young men and teaching them not only hockey skills, but life skills. I think for everybody that goes on to make a career of hockey, you hope you made an impression on them and in their life they make decisions you had a opportunity to teach them.
“They might not understand it at first. They might think you are being a little bit hard on them, but after they get away from the game and they look back, they say ‘now I know what he meant by work ethic or discipline.’ It is something that would be important as they move on in life.”
Hay’s 600 wins are spread out between Kamloops (144), the Tri-City Americans (67) and Vancouver (389).
“The players have put in a great effort,” Hay said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at — that type of milestone — without working with good people — good players, good coaches, good management, good ownership. You have success because you are with a group that is willing to dig in and work, and then you have the opportunity to win. You want to make sure you are giving back.”
Hay coached the Americans for two seasons — 1998-2000 — and has fond memories of his time in the Tri-Cities.
“I hope I have left something here they can remember that was good,” Hay said. “My family, first and foremost, really enjoyed living in the Tri-Cities. My son (Darrell) played here for four years, my daughters went to school at Kamiakin and made a lot of friends, and I really enjoyed my time here coaching.”
When Hay took over the Americans, they were coming off a 17-win season under Rick Lanz. Hay, along with assistant Terry Bangen and head scout Scott Bonner, they turned the program around. They won 43 games his first season and 24 the next.
“We made an impression when we came into Tri-City,” Hay said. “We had a real turnaround year. You want to have a team the fans are proud of and we gave them a team they were proud of. Bob Tory and Jim Hiller have done a great job. Forging a tradition of winning, I’m pretty excited about that.”
Hay reached his 500th win Dec. 4, 2010, with a 2-1 win over Victoria. His next big milestone is coaching his 1,000th game in the WHL. That day is Feb. 22 at Edmonton, and he’ll join Hodge, Molleken, Don Nachbaur and Ernie “Punch” McLean, who Hay played for with the New Westminster Bruins (1973-74).
“(Spokane coach) Donnie Nachbaur and I were laughing about that the other day,” Hay said of coaching 1,000 games. “We must be getting old. It says a lot when you’ve been able to have that type of longevity. Again, it goes back to working with really good people. To me, it seems like it has gone by really fast. The other day I was making the decision to leave the (Kamloops) fire hall to coach. That was my biggest decision, even after I had the success in Kamloops, I was still a member of the fire department. I made the decision to go to the National Hockey League. Everything has turned out well for me. I can’t ask anything more.”