April 13th, 2024

A third time would be a charm

By JAMES TUBB on March 30, 2024.

PHOTO COURTESY WHL Medicine Hat Tigers head coach Willie Desjardins won his first of two Western Hockey League championships with the Tigers' 2004 title.


“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had throughout my whole career and I can’t say enough great things about Willie,” Tigers alumni forward Ryan Hollweg said about his former bench boss.

While the 2004 Medicine Hat Tigers team is in their reminiscing era, looking back 20 years later on the franchise’s first championship after a 16-year drought, according to them one of the leading causes of that success comes back to one man, Willie Desjardins.

“He changed the culture of the team and really made us believe in ourselves,” goaltender Kevin Nastiuk said. “He put systems together and obviously really believes in leadership and leading by example.

“He really inspired us to be the best we could be.”

The 2004 season was Desjardins’ second at the helm in Medicine Hat, having been hired the year before where he led the Tigers back to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.

The 2004 title was the beginning of a legacy that will more than likely end with a banner of his own hanging in the same rafters as his two championships. Desjardins certainly won’t look at it that way, he’s happy he was along for the ride and was able to see his team have success. He views where that team was before winning as his current group stands.

“It was the best, everybody was so excited and then we got spoiled because we had some good teams for a while, so it was like that was expected,” Desjardins said. “But again, now we’re kind of where we were there, where we are getting ready again. It’s been a while since we’ve had good teams and had a chance to win and this team’s coming in and have their chance to do something.”

Beyond the timeline of overcoming rough years and returning to the playoffs, Desjardins says the 2004 team and this year’s group have different personalities, as all teams do. He says there is another similarity that goes a long way.

“There isn’t a lot you can take from that (2004) team except the excitement of having a chance to do something, and that’s important,” Desjardins said. “So it’s our chance to do something just like that year, they had their chance to do something.”

If there’s anyone who can bring a team out of the wallows of an 11-win season and push toward a championship only a few years later, there’s no one else Ryan Hollweg would choose, even if Desjardins’ infamous moustache is a little more grey now than it was in 2004.

“Willie was so ahead of his time, as far as relating with the players and getting to know them on a personal level,” Hollweg said. “Having dinners at his at his house in Calgary as a whole team, bringing everybody into his home. That’s what builds a culture and that’s what helps build a winning identity, because it’s just a family environment.

“I can’t say enough great things about when he came in and really changed the look of the whole organization. There’s a reason why they’ve continued to have success to this day, Willie Desjardins is a huge part of that.”

Even before they won in 2004, Desjardins can remember the rise of passion the city had with the team and how it felt in the rink. He recalls Game 68 of the 2002-03 season against the Swift Current Broncos, who had beat Medicine Hat in the seven previous matchups. The Tigers won Game 68 and as he addressed the team in the locker room, Desjardins says there was a feeling in the building he’s looking to repeat again.

“After talking to the team I went into the coach’s room and you could just kind of hear this roar or there’s something going out on the stands, I didn’t know what was going on,” Desjardins said. “So I came out and looked in, and the fans are still cheering and it had to be eight minutes after the game. It was incredible, the feeling.

“It was great, our fans are super fans, it was exciting at those times and we gotta get that back. We gotta get those runs. We gotta get it. It’s been special here, we’ve had good crowds coming out lately, which has been great.”

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