Milan Dragicevic holds the honor of being the first head coach in Vancouver Giants history. Although his tenure only lasted one season, Milan looks back at the experience in a positive light. The former WHL and USports defenceman recently discussed his playing career, time with the Giants, and overall coaching career in an interview.
Playing in the WHL:
Dragicevic played for five teams in his four-year career. He started his career off in 1986 with the Regina Pats. “When you start off in the WHL at 16, you are very excited especially to go to a franchise like Regina. In the 80’s they were winning all the time. They had championships in the Western division. It was an exciting time to go there as a 16-year-old and play,” Dragicevic says when looking back at his time with Regina.
On this date in @WHLPats history:
November 9, 1986
The Pats traveled to Brandon & beat the Wheat Kings 9-0. Milan Dragicevic (2), Erin Ginnell (2), Darrin McKechnie, Grant Chorney, Brad Miller, Gary Dickie & Ray Savard scored for the Pats. Stacy Nickel picked up the shutout. pic.twitter.com/aUAiglRCpu
— Kevin Shaw (@theblueliner) November 9, 2020
Milan was traded to the New Westminster Bruins during his second season in the WHL around Christmas time of 1987. After the Bruins first-round exit that year, the team folded and headed to Tri-City. Milan stayed with the team through the move and was part of the Tri-City Americans inaugural team.
“In the summer of ‘88, they flew the players out to Tri-City to do some promotional stuff and see the city. They had this makeshift little rink in a park. We probably had 1,000 people around watching us skate on this fake ice. We were teaching people what offsides and different penalties were. The biggest ovation was when we showed the people in the Western Hockey League that there was fighting allowed. We pretended to play fight and the fans went crazy! It was an unusual and thrilling experience. It is amazing how far the fans in the states have come in their knowledge of hockey.”
Milan was then traded to Spokane where he played with future NHLers like Pat Fallon, Ray Whitney, and Travis Green. After a season and a half in Spokane, Milan was traded to the Victoria Cougars where he finished up his WHL career.
Time with Acadia University:
Instead of returning for his 20-year-old season, Dragicevic used his WHL scholarship package to attend Acadia University in Nova Scotia. During his time at Acadia, Dragicevic received degrees in recreation management and sociology. Dragicevic not only had to learn a new culture but also had to learn how to deal with the climate in the Maritimes. Dragicevic says that going to university was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“The biggest shock was going to the Maritimes and getting the wind off the Bay of Fundy. If you could walk to your class, sometimes you had to go inside a coffee shop to warm up because it was so cold and windy. You have to adjust and get used to it. You have to be prepared for the cold in Wolfville. It’s those memories that we all laugh at right now. Saying how did we ever survive the winter but we did and we thrived.”
During his time with Acadia, Dragicevic was part of the 1992-93 CIAU Men’s Hockey Champions. After going 22-2-2 in the season, Acadia destroyed the University of Toronto 12-1 to win their first-ever CIAU Men’s Hockey Title. “We would be considered one of the best teams ever to play University hockey,” Milan says. “We were a special team with a group of men that represented each province. It was a special bond that forged friendships that have lasted up to today. When you win a championship, you are friends for life. It is a season I will never forget.”
Let’s have a little fun through these tough times… can you name this former Acadia Axemen? pic.twitter.com/CxwOqy6tDh
— Acadia Axemen Hockey (@axemenhockey) March 30, 2020
Jump into Coaching:
Milan returned to Tri-City as an assistant coach for two seasons. “You really learn a lot more about yourself and how to deal with adversity when you have a young team that is struggling. As an assistant coach, you learn how to deal with each person as an individual and try to help them on and off the ice. Those lessons I learned over those two years were invaluable.”
Coaching in the AJHL:
In 1998, Dragicevic took over as head coach and GM of the Drayton Valley Thunder. “There is a big difference when going from an assistant coach where your primary concern is to give suggestions to a head coach/GM where you have to make all of the decisions that impact your hockey team,” Milan says. “You learn as you go. You will make mistakes as a general manager, but you learn, and you get better. Those two years at the Junior A level were some of the best times I have had coaching.” Dragicevic was named coach of the year in his second season as head coach after posting 40 wins in 64 games.
First Head Coach in Vancouver Giants History:
Dragicevic was tasked with being the first head coach in Giants history. “It was very exciting. We had the opportunity to go through an expansion draft and select players from different teams. We were competitive up until Christmas until we traded away top players for young players and picks. It was the right thing to do. We were a young team and it was a good developmental process for those young guys.” This strategy helped the Giants make the Memorial Cup in 2006 and win the championship at home in 2007. “The main part of that season was to develop the players and let them learn what the Western Hockey League was all about.”
Being the new team in town, there was a lot of intrigue about the team. “I think that first year, everyone was so excited. We were averaging six to seven thousand fans per game. Everybody wanted to see us be successful and watch this team mature. I remember we had Darren Lynch and Jeremey Jackson that year who were fan favorites. They electrified fans. We did some really big things that year and the biggest was to play the young guys to develop them down the road.”
Playing in the Pacific Coliseum:
For the first 15 seasons of Giants hockey, the franchise used the historic Pacific Coliseum as their home. The former home of the Vancouver Canucks had been empty since 1995, so the Giants were a welcomed tenant. Being behind the same bench where Giants owner Pat Quinn had coached the Canucks to the Stanley Cup in 1994 was special for Milan. “You pinch yourself every time you are behind the bench. When you see that many people behind you in the stands, it’s impressive. We would always have three to five microphones in your face after the game because we were brand new. It was a lesson for everyone with the amount of media attention we got.”
Relationship with Pat Quinn and Gordie Howe:
Pat Quinn and Gordie Howe have been part of the Giants since day one. The two Hockey Hall of Famers were great resources to Milan and everyone around the team up until they both passed. “You could never have talked to those two gentlemen enough. Their support was unwavering. They were always there if you needed advice and they were a great sounding board for everybody in the organization.”
Time with UBC:
After his one season with the Giants, Dragicevic joined the University of British Columbia as their men’s hockey coach. He spent 12 years with the program. During that time, he was named conference coach of the year in 2012. When you coach in the WHL or junior, hockey is the main focus of the players, but in University, the players need to create more of a balance between their schoolwork and hockey.
“Some of our guys were 25 years old and were studying to be lawyers and doctors. Some of them had families so it’s not 100% hockey. They were incredible students of the game and they played hockey for a passion. They wanted to succeed academically as well. Hockey was something they did because they loved it. I truly enjoyed my time at UBC. Hardest school to get into academically so you know the players we were dealing with at UBC were academically gifted.”
Coaching Canada at the Universiade:
In 2009, Dragicevic was selected to lead Canada’s hockey team at the Universiade in Harbin, China. The Universiade is a competition like the Olympics but for University athletes. Harbin is located in Northeast China. The tournament happened in February where the average temperature is -17˚C. How Team Canada does their selection is they alternate by conference to determine who goes to the competition. There are three conferences within Canada, so they work on a rotation to see which players are selected for their hockey team. Canada went undefeated in the round-robin and won silver in the tournament.
“We played China in our first game of the round-robin and they said 60 million people watched the game. It was an incredible culture shock. People were smoking in the stands. The hockey was incredible when we were playing against Sweden and Russia. It is an experience I will never forget. From the opening ceremonies to the closing ceremonies to how we were treated. To this day, I still speak to some of the players. It was a highlight for a lot of the players. For our players to see the way of life of the people in Harbin, it was completely different than what anyone was used to.”
Delta Hockey Academy:
Recently, Milan has been working with the Delta Hockey Academy. He has had the opportunity to coach Vancouver Giants prospects like Ethan Semeniuk and Damian Palmieri as well as his own son Lukas who was drafted fourth overall in the Bantam Draft by Tri-City this past year. His son will have an opportunity to play for the same team Milan did during his WHL tenure. Milan is focused on developing these players and making sure they have successful careers on and off the ice.
Congratulations to Lukas Dragicevic, son of @AcadiaAthletics Axemen alumnus Milan, On being drafted 4th overall by @TCAmericans in the 2020 WHLBantamDraft! #AcadiaPride #AxemenFamily @midragicevic https://t.co/67bmfsdDx0
— Acadia Axemen Hockey (@axemenhockey) April 22, 2020
“The first thing we try and do is make sure our players are ready for junior hockey next year. They come to us as under 18 players, so we talk lots about junior hockey. That is where our players are going to go. We talk about the commitment levels these players need and the work ethic they need to put in to advance to the next step.
“We want our players to have success. It has been full circle for me. What I find is that these players need solid guidance and good advice. They need to know how to prepare and live off the ice, so they are prepared to enter junior hockey as a 16 or 17-year-old. We make sure our players don’t make the same mistakes we did when we were playing. We want to make sure these players are fully ready to move onto the next step. As coaches, we have to make sure we have the same passion as these players have if they want to progress.”
Reinforcing Off-Ice Behaviour:
One key part of Milan’s job is to ensure that these kids are good citizens off the ice, as well as succeeding on the ice. “What the scouts see in a game is a small part. It is what you do when you leave the rink at home or how you prepare that really matter to junior teams. They want to bring in high-quality players that are coachable and that treat everyone with respect on and off the ice.”
Milan and the Future:
— Richmond Jets MHA (@RichmondJetsMHA) September 6, 2014
Milan has had a great career so far as a player and as a coach. He is dedicated to the game and continues to give back to youth in hockey. Some parting words from Milan are “If you love the game, there is always room for people inside the game. If you treat people well and respect the game, you can always do something with the game and give back. Whether it is coaching or working for a junior team, there is always room for good people in hockey.” The one-time Giants coach is a great coach and mentor to these young hockey players. A coach with his passion is sure to have continued success in the future.