Serge Lajoie’s Western Hockey League statistics are forgettable.
Only ardent fans will remember the 17-year-old defenceman who had two points, both assists, in seven games with the Kamloops Blazers in 1986-1987.
“Those two assists came when I lost the puck,” Lajoie quipped, noting he watched more games than he played that season. “Rob Brown picked it up and probably went end to end. I’m grateful for that. I am on the stat sheet.”
Lajoie, 49, wants to make an indelible mark this time around.
The Bonnyville, Alta., product, who is bilingual and proud of his French roots, was named the Blazers’ head coach on June 25 and succeeds Kamloops legend Don Hay, now an assistant coach with the Portland Winterhawks.
Blazers’ majority owner Tom Gaglardi cleaned house in May, demoting Hay to an advisory role and jettisoning general manager Stu MacGregor, director of player personnel Matt Recchi and assistant coach Mike Needham.
Gaglardi told media to expect incoming GM and head coach hires to be younger than their predecessors. MacGregor’s replacement, Matt Bardsley, 46, was tasked with finding a bench boss.
Bardsley wanted an adept communicator who understands today’s junior hockey player and he emphasized how much value he places on skill development.
Lajoie, who led the Alberta Golden Bears to a U Sports hockey title earlier this year, emerged with the job.
Here are a few reasons why:
On the same page
Lajoie’s crash course in communicating with the modern-day junior player began when his children were born.
Marc, 15, is a 6-foot-3, 209-pound defenceman the Tri-City Americans picked 14th overall at the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft in Red Deer.
Isabelle, 17, has won back-to-back Esso Cup championships, claiming the national female midget AAA title with the St. Albert Slash in 2017 and 2018.
Prior to the draft this spring, Lajoie helped coach a group of elite 2003-born players from Alberta, some of whom went on to be first-round picks.
“I never see them as entitled,” Lajoie said. “I see them as informed and with high expectations. They push their coaches to really be prepared and challenge them.
“I also think that helped me at U of A, in terms of not putting myself on a pedestal and saying, ‘I’m the head coach and you guys will listen to what I tell you.’ It’s more of a partnership. You’ve got to share the responsibility of trying to get better each day. A group of 15-year-olds taught me that.”
The inmates can’t run the asylum. Lajoie explained his plan for discipline.
“It would be no different than if, at this moment, you started to criticize the answers I was giving you without building a relationship,” Lajoie said. “If you and I have a relationship and you start to question some of the things that I do, I take it as more of a situation where you’re trying to help me get better.
“It comes back to the fundamental piece of you’ve got to build relationships. You’ve got to build trust. You’ve got to show them you care. I know that they may be fluffy words for people to hear, but that’s important.”
Being adept in skill development would seem like a no-brainer prerequisite for any coach, but the term has a specific meaning to Bardsley and Lajoie.
“Skill that is transferable to a game situation,” said Lajoie, who brought his skill-development guru to Kamloops.
Dan Kordic, a former NHLer who was an assistant coach on Lajoie’s staff with the Golden Bears for the past two seasons, replaces Needham as the Blazers’ assistant coach.
“He’s studied endless video of NHL teams and players,” Lajoie said. “The game is evolving because of all the individual skill coaches that are out there.”
The plan is to give players ample time to work on skills in isolation with Kordic, goaltending coach Dan De Palma and part-time assistant coaches Chris Murray and Aaron Keller, each of whom is expected to return this season.
“Conceptually, it’s my job to figure out how those skills translate into game situations.”
Lajoie can be excused for twice catching himself saying Golden Bears instead of Blazers during an interview with KTW on Monday.
The University of Alberta has been a formative institution for the proud alumnus.
He manned the Golden Bears’ blue line from 1988 to 1993, the highlight of his university playing career a national championship in 1992.
Lajoie considers Billy Moores his No. 1 hockey mentor. Moores, whose brother, Don, is the Blazers’ president, compiled a record of 220-80-23 as head coach of the Golden Bears and led them to national titles in 1980 and 1992.
Golden Bears’ hockey godfather and Hockey Hall of Fame member Clare Drake was Lajoie’s head coach in 1988-1989.
“He made the blueprint for Golden Bears hockey,” Lajoie said of Drake.
Lajoie earned a teaching degree from the U of A in 1993, with a major in French and minor in physical education, but continued pursuing a career on the ice after university, playing pro hockey in Germany for four years with Bad Nauheim EC.
He met his wife, Kelly, in St. Albert and the couple settled there after Serge returned from Europe in 1998.
Kelly has a teaching degree from the U of A and played volleyball briefly for the Pandas. The Lajoies taught in the St. Albert area in the seven years following Serge’s playing career.
Steve Hamilton, who was named head coach of the Calgary Hitmen in July, was Serge’s teaching partner for four years. They worked in the Donnan and Vimy Hockey program, for students pursuing academics and athletics.
Lajoie’s Golden Bears hibernation ended in 2005, when he returned to the bench as an assistant coach, the position he held when Alberta won national championships in 2006 and 2008.
He remained in the role until 2010, when he completed his master of arts in coaching and accepted the head coaching position with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology Ooks
Under Lajoie, the Ooks claimed two Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference titles (2013, 2015) and were twice runners-up (2012, 2014). He was named ACAC men’s hockey coach of the year in 2014 and 2015.
The Lajoie connection to the U of A will soon grow stronger.
Isabelle, who is heading into Grade 12, will join the Pandas in time for the 2019-2020 U Sports season.
Kelly, Marc and Isabelle will remain in St. Albert while Serge coaches in Kamloops and lives out of a hotel room this season.
Marc and Isabelle are partly responsible for their dad landing a new job.
When Lajoie took the Golden Bears’ head coaching reins in 2015, it was with knowledge that Ian Herbers, a friend and mentor, may return to the position after a three-year sabbatical.
Herbers, who left the U of A after the 2014-2015 season to join the Edmonton Oilers as an assistant coach, will be back behind Alberta’s bench this season.
“When I was put in a situation where I had to move away from U of A with Ian coming back, I contemplated teaching for a year to reflect on what to do,” Lajoie said.
“Both kids said, ‘You’re not a teacher. You’re a coach and you’ve got to pursue that. They only know me as a coach. When I went to the U of A, they were four and two.”
There is an in-vogue hockey expression — we want to play fast — that, like skill development, is vague and needs an explanation.
Lajoie listed a few examples of what playing fast, a strategy he aims to employ, means to him: Out-support the other team; put the puck in good areas so you can maximize speed (which requires players to think quickly); get defencemen back to pucks quickly in their own zone; D-men should initiate the rush, not lead it; have forwards in good supporting positions; get moving north quickly; hunt and strip pucks; have a high shot volume; and work feverishly to retrieve rebounds.
“Outwork your skill,” Lajoie said. “Habits, details — everything matters.
“And, if you want to play fast, first of all, you’ve got to develop good practice habits and practise the way you want to play.”
Fans in Kamloops are hungry for a winner, as is ownership.
“My expectation is to compete for the Memorial Cup,” Lajoie said. “If I work backwards from there, it’s what do we need to do to get there? We want to get better every single day. I’m really excited, but I’m going to cut myself some slack. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
The Blazers will begin a new era against an old foe, the Kelowna Rockets, on Sept. 21 at Sandman Centre.
“Objective one is to get better,” Lajoie said. “By Christmas, we can re-evaluate where we’re at and continue to make some adjustments so we can improve.
“We want to definitely make sure that we get into the playoffs.”
As for game-day emotions on Sept. 21 and the feeling of accomplishment that often accompanies a major career step, Lajoie is not expecting to be overwhelmed.
“My kids always say I never smile, but inside I do take things in,” Lajoie said. “There will be a sense of pride. You have to earn your opportunities. I think I’ve earned this through the time I’ve put in.
“Once the pucks drops, it’s all business.”