By Chris Langrill
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – If you get a chance to meet Derek Laxdal in person, beware of his handshake.
People who have worked with the new Idaho Steelheads coach since he took over the ECHL hockey team in August have jokingly called it “The Death Grip.”
It’s an appropriate label for a former NHL player who seems to have a firm grasp on what he expects of himself and his players.
Laxdal can be so intense that even he admits that he needs to lighten up a little.
“You’ve got to have fun coming to the hockey rink,” Laxdal said this week as the Steelheads prepared for tonight’s season opener at the newly named Qwest Arena. “My first year of coaching, about halfway through the season, I had my leaders come in the room and say, ‘Hey, Laxy, we’ve got to have a little more fun.’ So you learn. I want the guys to have fun, but you’ll notice (in practice) I want the guys to work hard.”
Laxdal, who played the game for almost two decades and spent 67 games in the NHL, also expects himself to work hard. For the past 12 years he has been working toward Level 4 certification with Hockey Canada.
Only about 40 people have obtained that level of coaching. The Level 4 program culminates with the candidate defending his thesis before a panel that includes a medical doctor, a psychologist and a physiologist. The process takes four hours.
Laxdal, 39, said he will continue to work on his certification during the regular season and may fly to Calgary during the All-Star break to move the process along. He said he has about two more years of work to do before he completes the program.
That Laxdal continues to seek out learning opportunities doesn’t surprise Mel Davidson, coach of the women’s Olympic team in Canada. Davidson and Laxdal met about four years ago at a Hockey Canada seminar, and the two have been sharing notes ever since.
“He is real passionate about coaching,” Davidson said of Laxdal. “He’s an incredible student of the game. He’s constantly picking my brain and asking me to send him e-mails about this or that. He and I can talk about the art of coaching for a long time. It’s great discussion.”
Defenseman Blake Forsyth has had more experience with Laxdal’s coaching style than any other player on the Steelheads’ roster. He played under Laxdal last season when they were with the CHL’s Wichita Thunder.”He’s definitely a players’ coach,” Forsyth said. “He has a definite passion for the game and understands it from a player’s perspective. On the bench, he shows that intensity. He’s right in there, ready to go to battle for you, and he’ll stick up for us all day long.”
Maybe to a fault, even.
Laxdal was suspended for the second half of a CHL playoff series last season after getting in an on-ice fight with an opposing coach after the game.
Ever the student, Laxdal said he learned his lesson after that incident.
“Sometimes we learn the hard way,” he said.
Laxdal insists he’s not all about hard work. He said he enjoys playing golf and his favorite pro team in sports is the Toronto Maple Leafs – “by far.” He enjoys watching the NFL on TV, but says he can’t watch basketball.
He also enjoys spending time with his wife, Hali, and their two daughters, Jessica, 14, and Jamie, 13.
He even affords himself a weeklong fishing trip with his father and father-in-law every summer in Manitoba, Canada.
“For me, it’s a chance to get away from the cell phone, get away from hockey,” Laxdal said. “But you know what is funny? I fish from 7 a.m. until 10 o’clock at night, seven days a week.”