By Chris Umpierre
It’s difficult to distinguish Charlotte Checkers coach Derek Wilkinson from his players when his team isn’t on the ice.
The 30-year-old, who is the second youngest head coach in the ECHL, is only a few years older than most of his players. Two, in fact, are older than him.
But don’t let Wilkinson’s youth fool you.
In his first full season as a head coach, Wilkinson led Charlotte to one of its best seasons since it joined the ECHL in 1993. The Checkers, who went 39-26-7 in the regular season, are in the conference finals for the first time in nine years.
Charlotte beat the Florida Everblades 5-4 in Game 2 of the American Conference Finals on Wednesday at Germain Arena. The best-of-7 series is 1-1. Game 3 is Friday in Charlotte, N.C.
“(My age) has never been a factor,” said Wilkinson, who is also the team’s general manager. “I think it’s just the way you treat people. It all comes down to that. Whether you’re 50 or you’re 20, how you treat people is the key.”
Charlotte defenseman Ryan Glenn, 24, said Wilkinson’s age has helped many of his players relate to him. Wilkinson also doesn’t yell or bark out orders like the Checkers last coach, Don MacAdam.
Wilkinson replaced MacAdam on an interim basis last year. Wilkinson went 12-14-4 to end the 2003-04 season and the club removed the interim tag. Wilkinson signed a two-year extension with Charlotte in April.
“Wilkie came in and took a different approach with the guys (than MacAdam did),” Glenn said. “He came in and told us what to do and the guys responded.”
Although this is Wilkinson’s first foray into coaching, he has plenty of experience from which to draw. The former goalie played seven professional seasons, including parts of four with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
Wilkinson was the first-ever goalie drafted by Tampa Bay. A seventh-round draft pick in the 1992 draft, Wilkinson played in 22 NHL games from 1995-99. He had a 3-12-3 record and a 3.67 goals-against-average.
He played against some of the game’s best such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Brett Hull. He remembers shutting out the then Gretzky-led New York Rangers on a New Years Eve.
“I was pretty excited about what I did and Gretzky’s quote (in the newspaper) was, ‘I could have played against us tonight and got a shutout.’ I was like OK, I guess it wasn’t a big deal,” said Wilkinson, laughing.
Wilkinson had no desire of being a head coach after his playing career. He was Charlotte’s assistant coach before MacAdam’s dismissal.
“I got into it to be a general manager,” Wilkinson said. “That’s where my passion and my love was. I enjoyed the assistant coaching part because it kind of came natural to me. But I never had aspirations of being a head coach. I got the opportunity to do it (for 30 games last year) and I found that I really did like it.”
Because of the NHL lockout, Wilkinson has had some NHL coaches such as Rangers assistant Mike Pelino and Ottawa assistant Ron Low help him at practice.
“I’ve been able to draw from so many people and learn an awful lot this year,” Wilkinson said. “If those people weren’t around, I don’t know how good we’d be.”