Coach Cory Clouston said that he understood Kelly McCrimmon’s rationale for firing him Tuesday.
In the post-mortem of this season, that in itself is a little ironic considering they didn’t see eye-to-eye on much else when it comes to evaluating the Brandon Wheat Kings’ 2011-12 WHL campaign.
Despite their difference of opinion, it was still a shocking development when the Wheat Kings’ owner and general manager announced yesterday that he was dumping Clouston, who still has a full year left on what is believed to be a lucrative two-year contract that he signed last summer to serve as head coach.
For the record, McCrimmon said he didn’t want to spend the next two months in limbo while Clouston made up his mind whether or not to exercise his out-clause to take a professional job, or to return behind the bench in Brandon in 2012-13.
With a rebuilding season ahead for the Wheat Kings and a large influx of rookies expected, you can understand McCrimmon’s desire to have some certainty about the direction of the team. For his part, Clouston had made it clear in an interview in the Sun last week that while he would be happy to return as coach, he was going to explore his options to move up to the professional ranks, creating an off-season of uncertainty.
It didn’t help matters that Clouston and McCrimmon had two completely different opinions on this past season, after the Wheat Kings went 39-28-1-4 and were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs.
You didn’t have to read between the lines to understand that McCrimmon — who told the Sun he was “disappointed in our year” — and Clouston — who “thought we had a pretty good season” — weren’t on the same page anymore.
McCrimmon invested heavily in this year’s team, dishing out plenty of cash to hire a former NHL coach and further add to the payroll by moving assistant coach Darren Ritchie to a full-time role.
On the ice, McCrimmon also paid the price in draft picks and young players in a pair of big trades to land the best 20-year-old available at the overage deadline in Darian Dziurzynskiand arguably the best player available at the WHL trade deadline in Kevin Sundher, moves that could only help his Clouston-coached team finish sixth in the Eastern Conference.
So what’s next for the Wheat Kings? There’s a good chance that McCrimmon himself will return to his dual role as head coach and GM, as he did back in 2004 when he fired Mike Kelly with six games remaining in the season to begin what turned into a seven-year stint behind the bench.
(Interestingly, Mike Kelly is now heading back to his second straight Memorial Cup as director of hockey operations and associate coach for the QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs.)
If McCrimmon does look to hire a new coach — a move that may depend somewhat upon whether Clouston gets hired elsewhere and frees up McCrimmon from paying him for the entire 2012-13 season — the Wheat Kings may look to someone like former Regina Pats coach Curtis Hunt.
Or, he may consider hiring someone like Humboldt Broncos coach/GM Dean Brockman, arguably the best Junior A coach in Western Canada after having led the Broncos to four Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League titles and being named SJHL coach of the year three times in the past six seasons.
Let the speculation begin.