By Cliff Mehrtens
The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A few games into being Charlotte Checkers interim coach last season, Derek Wilkinson was told he glanced down too much walking off the ice.The next game, he picked a fan to look at.
“We had lost, and the guy chewed Derek all up and down,” Checkers President Jeff Longo said last week. “Really gave it to him good.”
The next morning, Wilkinson found out the season-ticket holder’s name, and called him. Spent 45 minutes chatting. Peacefully.
Wilkinson, 30, soon lost the interim tag, and in his first full season, has the Checkers (37-22-6) leading the ECHL Eastern Division. Diffusing hazards have become his norm.
Two veterans left in midseason to play in Europe. Call-ups and injuries pop up like ragweed. There was a five-games-in-eight-days trip in which the bus died in the marshes between Beaumont, Texas, and Lafayette, La.
Wilkinson’s stoic reaction, as the bus groaned off an I-10 exit: “This doesn’t sound good.”
The three-hour delay landed the team at its hotel at 2:30 a.m. An hour later, the fire alarm blared.
“Just another chapter in the book,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson, a former NHL goaltender, isn’t a screamer. Maybe it’s because he expects players to be accountable, or because as a goalie, there was little ambiguity. Either he stopped the puck, or it went into the net.
“I have real high expectations, the same level as guys who’re a lot more intense, and yell and scream,” he said. “I expect the best out of our guys, I just go about it in a different approach. I like to have a lot of fun with it. I don’t see why you can’t enjoy it.”
The wry sense of humor helps with the stress of a long season.
“Derek stays focused, and doesn’t sit around talking about yesterday,” said Terri, his wife. “He loves the coaching part of it, and being hands-on. Derek’s good at multi-tasking.”
After a year of selling real estate when he stopped playing, Wilkinson was hired as an assistant. He was aiming for a hockey job as general manager. Don MacAdam got fired in January 2004, and Wilkinson debuted as coach that night in Greensboro. He added GM duties in the summer, and built a winner.
His year in real estate — “the real world,” he says — let him see people in a different light.
Wilkinson saw retired agents selling for the joy, youthful agents driven to crack the $10 million- or $20 million-sales club, and others maintain yearly levels.
“I learned that although you’re in the same profession, people have different goals,” he said. “In hockey, one guy might be really driven to play in the NHL, and another guy’s whole goal may be to play in the American (Hockey) League. Some guys think (the ECHL) is the best level they can ever play at. I understand that now.”
Wilkinson knows the value of diversity. Assistant Allan Egeland, and visiting coaches Mike Pelino (New York Rangers) and Ron Low (Ottawa Senators) have run practices. Wilkinson also deals with players’ off-ice details — accommodations, payroll, travel, etc.
“It’s obviously a long season, and he does a lot of little things to make sure it’s not his voice we’re listening to every day,” goaltender Alex Westlund said.”I’ve had coaches who scream and yell, and guys tuned it out by December. Derek has picked his spots when we needed to be yelled at.”
Wilkinson knows patience, too. He was 3-12-3 with Tampa Bay in the NHL, and didn’t win until his 10th game (he was 0-5-1 at the time). His NHL wins came against former All-Stars Mike Vernon, Mike Richter and Nikolai Khabibulin.
His office isn’t littered with the past. Clean desk. Computer on, usually. Neat stacks.
“Derek is a very level-headed guy,” Longo said. “I think there’s a great level of respect for him from the players. He’s taking a sense of pride in the product he’s built.”
The rare off-days are spent with Terri, and 13-month-old daughter Kylie. Even then, the phone might ring with a trade or call-up. Wilkinson said time away from family is the toughest aspect.
“The relationships you have with players on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “You watch kids improve and have success, have setbacks and work hard to get through it. The neat part at this level is you get to watch guys grow, not only as players, but as people.”