Sunday, 15 March 2009

End Of An Epic Era

Today's game between the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs and Ottawa 67's will mark the end of one of the most remarkable careers in the history of hockey. Ottawa head coach Brian "Killer" Kilrea has decided that this will be his last season, hanging up the whistle and clipboard at the end of the season. The 74 year-old, along with his long-time assistant coach Bert O'Brien, announced that this season would be their last in a long and highly successful career. He's not stepping away from the game entirely, though. Kilrea will remain with the 67's as their general manager. Coaching duties will be assumed by assistant coach Chris Byrne. Let's take a look at Brian Kilrea's impressive hockey career.

Kilrea didn't have an overly impressive NHL hockey career, but he was well-known throughout the minor-league circuit. Kilrea appeared in one game for the Detroit Red Wings in 1957-58, but didn't see an NHL rink again until the expansion in 1967. That season, he was selected by the Los Angeles Kings and played 25 games for the NHL club, posting three goals and eight assists along with 12 PIMs. However, Kilrea will always live in Los Angeles Kings history - he scored the first goal in franchise history for the Kings in a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on October 14, 1967.

Where Kilrea really made a name for himself was traveling across North America as a minor-leaguer. In 1959-60, Kilrea joined the AHL's Springfield Indians. After a couple of successful seasons with the Troy Bruins in the IHL, Kilrea had honed his skills. He made an immediate impact with the Indians as they won three consecutive Calder Cup Championships from 1960-62. As a sidenote, Kilrea and Don Cherry were teammates on that 1959-60 Indians team.

Kilrea's spectacular play continued throughout the decade as he posted five consecutive 20-goal season, but he was a phenomenal setup man. From 1960-65, Kilrea posted no less than 50 assists in each season, recording 67, 73, 50, 61, and 54. He still holds the record for career assists in Springfield Indians history.

Ironically, it was because of owner/manager/coach Eddie Shore's (yes, the same guy who ended Ace Bailey's career) handling of the players in Springfield that forced them to reach out to the startup NHL Players' Association. Alan Eagleson had been assisting the Toronto Maple Leafs' players negotiate better playing contracts and benefits, and Kilrea recognized the need for the same benefits for the players under the iron gauntlet of Eddie Shore.

Some of the things that Shore would make players do are, by today's standards, ridiculous. Inactive players were required to sweep the arena floors and make popcorn for fans. He forced players to take tap-dancing lessons to improve their balance. He routinely prescribed players to take laxatives for ailments despite him not having any medical training whatsoever. He would perform chiropractic services in his offices for players who complained of back pain. The demand of hospitalization while being injured, instead of being treated by "Dr. Shore", was one of the major reasons for the team refusing to take the ice in 1966.

What caused the players' association to form, however, was his tyrannical method of sitting players who opposed him, and then withholding their pay for "insubordination". After sitting several players who were scoring threats for the Indians, the team revolted in 1966, refusing to take the ice as long as Shore was in charge. Alan Eagleson was called in to mediate the situation, and it resulted in Shore resigning. Unknowingly, Kilrea and the Indians were directly responsible for the NHLPA under Alan Eagleson as Eagleson saw the power that the players had.

Cherry's and Kilrea's paths would cross once more as both players found themselves on the 1968-69 AHL's Rochester Americans roster. Through their battles in the AHL, Kilrea and Cherry had become good friends, and often spent their time away from the rink together while in the AHL. Kilrea retired after the 1969-70 season after playing in 32 games with the WHL's Denver Spurs, ending a career of bus travel.

Kilrea didn't walk away from hockey completely, though. After settling in Ottawa, Ontario, he began coaching minor hockey in Ottawa. Through four seasons, Kilrea had a successful program with the Ottawa West Midget AA team, including a victory over a Soviet Union team, their only loss on a Canadian tour. This caught the eye of the OHA's Ottawa 67's, and they contacted Kilrea to see if he was interested in coaching the major junior team. 67's head coach Leo Boivin was fired in the off-season, and Kilrea took over the 67's bench for the start of the 1974-75 season.

Kilrea's coaching has earned him the Matt Leyden Trophy for OHL Coach of the Year five times - 1981, 1982, 1996, 1997, and 2003. The 1997 season also earned him the CHL Coach of the Year Award. In 1994, Kilrea was given the Bill Long Award by the OHL for distinguished service to the OHL. He has won the Memorial Cup twice, in 1984 and 1999, and spent a season and a few games with the New York Islanders behind their bench from the end of 1984 until 1986 alongside Al Arbour. In 32 OHL seasons behind the bench, Kilrea has only posted a sub-.500 record seven times - an amazing feat when you consider the turnover of players from the CHL to the NHL.

In terms of history, Kilrea's coaching records are ones that will be nearly impossible to break. His first coaching win came on September 27, 1974 when the 67's defeated the Toronto Marlboros in a 9-5 game. He became the winningest coach in CHL history on January 17, 1997 when he won his 742nd game in a 6-0 67's victory over the North Bay Centennials, passing former WHL's Portland Winter Hawks coach Ken Hodge. The 67's defeated the Sudbury Wolves by a 4-2 score on March 9, 2003 to give Kilrea his 1000th victory. On February 2, 2007, Kilrea coached in his 2000th OHL game. 1192 victories to date, he will have a chance to add one more tonight as the 67's square off against the Frotenacs, his 2156th regular-season game.

In 2003, Brian Kilrea was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builder category for his extensive work with the 67's program. In honour of his induction, the CHL Coach of the Year Award was renamed the Brian Kilrea Coach of the Year Award, the same award he had won six years earlier.

Players that have gone onto the NHL and/or hockey coaching/management under Kilrea's tutelage are numerous: Sharks' GM Doug Wilson, color analyst Darren Pang, former Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Cassidy, retired NHL star Gary Roberts, Detroit Red Wing Kris Draper, New Jersey Devil Kevin Weekes, Spengler Cup Canadian head coach Sean Simpson, and current Windsor Spitfires owner Warren Rychel.

"Killer is a good coach and a great man. He cares a lot about his players," said former 67 Peter Tsimikalis to The Good Point. "Him being in the Hockey Hall of Fame, at times it was intimidating playing for him, especially as a young 16 year old kid, but the truth is that Killer treats you like a professional, and turns you into a man."

Good luck with the GM duties, Mr. Kilrea. This is one writer who will miss the fiery Kilrea behind the bench, and the players' coach and hockey pedagogue off the ice. Enjoy your retirement, sir. You've done more for this game than what most people accomplish in their lives.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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