Coming to Brandon is never just another road trip for Derek Laxdal.
The Edmonton Oil Kings head coach has a long history with the Wheat City, going back to his days as a Wheat King in the mid-1980s.
"I played there for three years and had a lot of success there as an individual, and we had a pretty good team my 17-year-old year there, with Cam Plante and guys like Ron Hextall and Ray Ferraro," said the 48-year-old Stonewall native, whose team takes a 2-0 series lead into Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal with the Brandon Wheat Kings on Tuesday at Westman Place (7 p.m.). "We probably didn’t go as far as we would have liked to (losing in the Eastern Conference semifinal), but we had a pretty good hockey club. I’ve got a lot of friends in Brandon, my wife’s from Rivers and my daughter goes to school in Brandon (at Brandon University). My family’s close in Stonewall, and I still know my billet in Brandon, so it’s always special coming back."
After spending his first Western Hockey League season with the Portland Winterhawks, Laxdal came to Brandon for the 1983-84 season, producing 118 goals and 214 points in 181 games as a Wheat King.
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Laxdal finished his WHL days with the New Westminster Bruins before embarking on a 15-year professional playing career that included 67 National Hockey League games with the Leafs and the New York Islanders.
From there, Laxdal has carved out in impressive coaching career, starting in the minor professional ranks — his Idaho Steelheads won the ECHL championship in 2007 —and signing on with the Oil Kings in 2010. Edmonton has gone on to win 182 regular-season games in only four seasons under Laxdal’s watch, claiming the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions in 2012.
Laxdal’s many years in the game have shaped the approach he takes with the Oil Kings and a culture that he hopes will lead to long-term success.
"We’re all invincible at the junior age and then once we get out on our own and figure it out that life’s going to move on with or without you and you’ve got to make sure that you put your best foot forward every day," he said. "… You look back at junior and you figure ‘Boy, I wish I would have done this a little bit differently,’ so that’s the things I think we can instil in these junior kids: You’ve got to work hard for everything you get and don’t take anything for granted."
Laxdal points at organizations like the Kootenay Ice and the Wheat Kings that have maintained success and strong identities no matter what changes take place.
"You look at the (Wheat Kings) team that’s going to be in place in the next couple years is going to be absolutely outstanding, with some of the players they’ve drafted and the talent that’s coming through," he said. "You’ve got to give it to Kelly (McCrimmon, the Wheat Kings head coach and general manager), he’s a pretty shrewd businessman and that’s going to one exciting hockey club. It’s taking its first step this year, and it’s going to be pretty neat to watch them over the next four, five years."