MEMORIAL CUPS, MARIO & NIGHTMARES: MOONLIGHTING, PART III
With a complete absence of hockey right now at all levels, we present to you today many more hockey stories in Moonlighting, Part III, the final installment of our DUB Network series on famed SJHL, WHL, AHL, and NHL coach Lorne Molleken of Weyburn, SK.
So far we’ve covered Lorne’s junior and pro playing career, his rapid rise up the coaching ranks all the way to the bench of the Chicago Blackhawks, and now we find ourselves in the summer of 2000 when “Mooner” was hired to lead the Regina Pats in a season where they’d host the 2001 Memorial Cup.
It was quite an opportunity to be the head coach of the world’s oldest junior hockey team, the Regina Pats.
“It certainly was,” Lorne agreed, in a phone call from his home at Long Lake, SK. “When we moved to Regina when I was 12, I played in one of two leagues; there was the Al Ritchie League and the Regina Pat League, who played out of the old Exhibition Stadium. I think my team was called the Blackhawks.
“Anyways, going to all the Pat games, and then one day I belong to the Pats! I’m not totally sure how that happened or worked out. So I played one year of Bantam and then when I was 14, I started playing Junior A with the Regina Pat Blues.
“At that time there was guys on the team who were going to university, right? I was 14! I could go back … there were guys like Kim McDougall, Al Dumba, Drew Callander, Normie Ashe, Eric Lockwood. Our coach was Dave Adolph and the GM was Mike Kartusch.”
I’m just going to let Lorne run with this because he got on a roll and tells it better than anyone else. Suffice it to say, the full-circle story of him growing up in the Queen City and getting to come back and coach this fabled franchise is an opportunity that only a cherished few get…
“I was in Grade 8 at Glen Elm School way out in the east end and I’d have to jump on the city bus after school and go all the way across the city to practice with the junior team at Exhibition Stadium!” Molleken recalled. “Then I’d have jump back on the bus after practice and go all the way home.
“And then when I got old enough, it was basically between me and Eddie Staniowski for who was going to be the goalie for the big team, the Regina Pats. I got traded to Swift Current, and the coach there was Stan Dunn, who was the coach of the Weyburn Red Wings when I was the stick boy.”
With apologies to Mooner, Pats head coach Bob Turner and GM Del Wilson made the right choice there with Ed Staniowski. “Steady Eddie” is regarded as the greatest Regina Pats goaltender of all-time, hands down, and led the team to the 1974 Memorial Cup championship.
But maybe Molleken could bring another Cup to Regina? Read on…
“That year, you were there with us Roddy,” Molleken smiled “To this day, my assistant coach Chad Mercier is one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met. We had so much fun that year. We had so much support from the Parker family, it was incredible. I really enjoyed my time working with Brent Parker.
“Brent made a whole slew of trades to make our team better. Our goalie at that time, his name was Donald Choukalos. We ended up losing out that year to the Calgary Hitmen in the first round, as you remember.”
Just to go back, the Pats were languishing around .500 or below in early December and the heat on the team was immense, as it always is on a Memorial Cup host. So Parker swung a ton of trades which landed the Pats the likes of Paul Elliott, Blake Evans, Gable Gross, David Kaczowka, Garnet Exelby, and Kevin Korol.
There was already a strong base of homegrown players including Brett Lysak (The Darling of the Dome), Barret Jackman, Garth Murray, Matt Hubbauer, and more.
The team rallied to finish at 40-27-3-2, second place in the East Division, but as Molleken said, the Pats bowed out in Round 1 to the Pavel Brendl-led Calgary Hitmen. Brendl scored in OT of the clinching Game 6 at the Saddledome. Regina defenceman Filip Novak turned the puck over at the Calgary blue line and Brendl raced 160 feet to bury it past Chocko. Fil The Thrill indeed. Argh!
It sent us home on the longest busride of my life.
“So we had all kinds of time (43 days) before the start of the Memorial Cup,” Mooner continued. “We played Ottawa in the first game and Donald Choukalos was having issues. We lost 5-2 in that opening game. I remember having to go sit with him at his billets’ house just about all night. I’m not quite sure Roddy what it was; the pressure or whatever. We ended up playing our back-up goalie Chad Davidson, and he played pretty great.”
He did! In the round-robin, the Pats beat Red Deer 5-2, lost 5-2 to Val d’Or, and then beat Ottawa 5-0 in the tiebreaker to set up a semifinal Saturday game against the Foreurs.
Unfortunately, all that game did was add more heartbreak to the already emotionally-scarred sports fans of Regina. With less than 2:00 remaining, Pats captain Barret Jackman scored to give Regina a 4-3 lead.
Celebration time, right? Not so fast. Val d’Or’s Simon Gamache tied it at 4-4 with 48 seconds to go and on we went to overtime.
At 11:46 of the extra period, Chris Lyness of the Foreurs ended it went he passed the puck out of the corner. It went off Chad Davidson’s skate and into the net.
Forget about the 13th man. This is still the most crushing defeat I’ve witnessed from my years behind the microphone calling games.
“To this day I still have bad dreams about this,” Mooner agreed. “Should I have called a timeout? When Jackman scored, the Agridome went ballistic. You couldn’t hear yourself think.
“I guess I was thinking that I didn’t want to take the momentum away from us. But we’d have played Red Deer in the final and we beat the Rebels earlier in the tournament. To this day I believe if we’d have got by Val D’or, we’d have won the Memorial Cup.”
Again, heartbreak. There’s nothing more I’ve ever wanted than a Memorial Cup ring with the Pats logo on it. We were thisclose.
So why didn’t you call a timeout?
“Because of the excitement. Just to get guys refocused. But I thought we did a good enough job, Roddy, because there was a delay in the action with something being thrown on the ice,” Mooner exclaimed. “Sometimes when you’re dealing with athletes – I don’t care if it’s pro or junior – sometimes the emotions are running so high, as a coach, you have to make sure you have everyone in the right frame of mind.”
The Regina stint was the shortest of Molleken’s career. It lasted just one season before he returned to the NHL.
“As that summer went on, I just forget how it happened but I ended up going to San Jose with Darryl Sutter and Rich Preston,” Mooner went on. “But we got fired in San Jose, and I ended up going back to Moose Jaw as the GM. Curtis Hunt and Lane Lambert were the coaches.”
Here we go again! And this wild ride isn’t anywhere near over.
“Barry Webster was after me to come back there to coach and manage,” Molleken remembered. “John LaBuick was the governor. Because of the confidence and friendship with Barry, after Christmas, he asked me to come back but I told him I wanted the coaches to stay on.
“I remember they were having a press conference at the Heritage Inn and we were walking in and remember how they have the big glass there by the restaurant? I could see Curtis and Lane were sitting in there and the look on their faces was ‘What the hell is going on?’
“To this day I don’t think they knew what was about to happen. I think Barry went in and just said ‘This is your new boss!’ I sat down with those guys and I’d just gone through all that shit in Chicago. I told Curtis and Lane ‘you guys have to trust me’.
They didn’t. Can you blame them? And within months the whole thing would blow up and everyone would go their separate ways. Hunt resigned and came to the Regina Pats where he’d win a division pennant and advance to the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. Lambert went on to the pros and he’s currently an assistant coach with the New York Islanders.
“We ended up losing to Brandon in the playoffs that year (2003), but during that season I hired Chad Lang away from the SAHA to be our marketing director in Moose Jaw,” Lorne reported. “I gave everybody a raise and new contracts and created a medical and dental plan for the employees.
“Next thing you know I get a call from Eddie Olczyk with the Penguins, who I’d coached in Chicago. He said he wanted me to come to Pittsburgh as his assistant coach. I’d only been in Moose Jaw for a few months! I’d put a bunch of money down on a house.
“So I ended up going to Pittsburgh after meeting with GM Craig Patrick at the Draft in Nashville. We didn’t have a great team. Mario Lemieux played a half a year with us that time.”
Molleken’s time in Pittsburgh wasn’t long (2003-2004) but it was memorable and he picked up some new friends. One just happened to be NHL icon, Mario Lemieux.
“One of the kids with the Pats passed away from cancer,” Lorne said sternly. “It was Todd Davison from Winnipeg when he was 20. I can remember calling Mario Lemieux and asking him to talk to this young guy because Mario had just went through all the cancer stuff. He picked up the phone and called the Davison family immediately. That tells you the kind of person he is.”
Who says you can’t go home again? Or you can never go back? Lorne Molleken may be the exception that proves the rule.
“That summer (2004), because the NHL lockout was coming, I said to Patsy that if we ever had a chance to go back to Saskatoon, we have to take it,” Molleken said. “My investment guy is a guy named Howard Claypool and out of the blue one day, he says he’d just had lunch with (Blades owner) Jack Brodsky, and they were wondering if I’d ever go back to Saskatoon?
“I was coming out west from Pittsburgh to do some scouting in the playoffs and I met with Jack, went back to Pittsburgh, and told Craig and Eddie that I was going back to the Blades. Next thing you know, I’m in Saskatoon for the next nine years as coach and GM.”
And Mooner would find himself in the exact same scenario again. The Saskatoon Blades were the Memorial Cup hosts in 2013 and the city was jacked. Molleken’s Men captured the East Division pennant at 44-22-2-4 but they were swept by Medicine Hat in Round 1, which took the air out of the city.
The Blades went 1-2 in the MC round-robin and were bombed in the tiebreaker 6-1 by Max Domi and the London Knights.
Having done it twice, does Lorne Molleken have any advice for teams hosting the Memorial Cup in the future?
“Make sure you win in the playoffs!” Lorne laughed. “Cuz both times we lost out in the first round. You know what Roddy? Often the first round of the playoffs is the toughest round to get through. The stars have to align for you. Unfortunately for us, they didn’t.
“It was difficult in both those years. As a coaching staff, we had a plan and the one thing I’ll say about Jack Brodsky and Brent Parker, they were so supportive of the teams and the coaching staff. Sometimes when things don’t go good, people point fingers but those two gentlemen didn’t point one finger at anybody. They took the brunt and the responsibility even though it had nothing to do with them.”
Seriously though, Lorne does have some advice for championship host teams, and constructing teams overall after being through multiple hockey wars over a decades-long, star-studded career.
“When we got Brayden Schenn with the Blades, that was the World Juniors year in Saskatoon,” Mooner advised. “We paid a dear price for him. But I think our attendance was 4,500 a game. It went up to 7,500 because of Brayden Schenn.”
“You know what? I sit back now and watch what goes on in the NHL too with teams that rent players and I’m not a big believer in that now. You always try to make trades to improve your team but sometimes it hurts your chemistry. Brayden Schenn was great for us in Saskatoon but he was a walking wounded guy. He played through a lot of stuff and we also came up against a great Kootenay team who’d traded for Cody Eakin. I don’t how many picks and players were involved in that one.
“I wouldn’t change anything and I don’t second guess anything but the older I’ve gotten and sit back and watch, sure you want the best players you can possibly can but you should make those trades early. When you make them at the deadline, there’s not much time (to come together as a team).”
Lorne busted a gut laughing when I mentioned his reputation was as a goon coach, but it’s pretty undeniable. However, he admitted he was able to adapt to the game as it changed to what it is today.
“I don’t think the game is as physical and obviously there’s not as much fighting as there used to be,” Lorne shrugged. “Trust me, I got into a lot of trouble with the league and you were sitting right beside me on the bus when I got those phone calls from the league office.
“One of the best things I ever did was go out to Caronport and get involved with the Prairie Hockey Academy. As you know, Briercrest Bible College is there, and working with young kids and young coaches have been one of the best things of my career. Could I adapt to today’s game? Absolutely. I had to, or else you get left behind.”
This is where we get to the part about building teams, scouting, and what it takes to be successful. Lorne knows as well as anyone.
“What I used to say to my scouts is I want good, character people. There’s tons of great players but we want good kids; guys who want to be hockey players. (Current Pats coach and former Blade) David Struch is a great example. He wasn’t physical nor would fight but he would pay the price to have success, do the little things, plus he had great leadership skills. I go to Pats games today and can hear Dave yelling from the bench ‘Finish your check!’
“Today’s game as a coach, it’s about building relationships, getting the best out of people, and sometimes you have to revert to being tough on them. Because if you make it easy on people, they’re always going to take the easy way out.”
Lastly, Lorne knows of what he speaks. He’s walked through the fire and after taming his own wild side, he’s dedicated his life to bringing out the best in people and striving for success.
It is one helluva story.
“I had my battles with alcohol Roddy, as you know,” Molleken concluded. “Without second, third, and sometimes fourth chances, I wouldn’t have lasted very long. That’s something I’ll always be thankful for. I’m not sure if you know this but in December I’m going to be inducted into the Toledo Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Back then there used to be ashtrays beside our lockers in the Goaldiggers dressing room. We’d be having a smoke when the coach Gregg Pilling was giving us shit!
“The game has changed.”
It has. I’ll reluctantly say it’s been for the better but there’s one thing I’ll guarantee you –
There will never be another Lorne Molleken.
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