Kilrea keeps teaching, winning

Major junior coach Brian Kilrea has turned teaching and winning into a Hall of Fame career.

Updated: November 1, 2003, 11:50 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

He is the winningest coach you never heard of.

OK, if you live in Ottawa or follow Canadian junior hockey with the same kind of passion reserved for every utterance of Anne Murray or the MacKenzie Brothers, perhaps you've heard of Brian Kilrea.

If not, we'll make it simple for you: Brian Kilrea is a hockey coach at the developmental level, and he's going into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday because he's a mighty good one. He's so good that he's won over 1,000 games. You read it right; 1,000 games won. Not coached, won. It's something that you've got to stop, read and re-read to appreciate: 1,000 wins.

Brian Kilrea
Brian Kilrea is in his 27th season behind the bench of the Ottawa 67's.
Actually, he's past that mark now. Kilrea won his 1,000th game March 9, 2003. After he got the call from the Hall and acknowledged it was "the proudest moment of my life," he went right back to coaching, right back to winning. Given that Scotty Bowman, now retired, is the only coach known to have surpassed the 1,000-win mark, Kilrea may someday be the winningest coach of all time.

Not bad for a coach you've never heard of.

Kilrea coaches the Ottawa 67's of the Ontario Hockey League, one of three leagues that compose the Canadian Hockey League (the Quebec Major Junior and Western being the other two) that produce a majority of National Hockey League players.

He has coached Islanders captain Michael Peca, Blue Jackets forward Andrew Cassels, San Jose center Alyn McCauley, Maple Leafs winger Gary Roberts and Hurricanes goaltender Kevin Weekes, just to name a few. He produced old school players like Doug Wilson (longtime Chicago Blackhawks star and now the general manager of the San Jose Sharks) and Jim Fox (a former Los Angeles King and now a member of the Kings broadcast team), and mentored Washington Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy and ESPN's own Darren Pang.

Kilrea is so successful as a coach that the CHL recently named its annual coaching award after him. The Brian Kilrea Award annually goes to the coach deemed to be the best in major junior hockey. Quite an honor for a man who still has a chance to win it.

"I've coached a long time," Kilrea said. "This (the Hall of Fame induction), it's a fabulous honor, but it's kind of funny because I'm being honored for something that I just love to do. I've been coaching all these years because it's fun. I love going to the rink. I look forward to the time on the ice with the kids and seeing them improve and hopefully fulfill their dreams."

And because he wins.

In a sense, Kilrea is fulfilling his dream -- though it didn't start out that way. His initial goal, like so many Canadian kids, was to play in the National Hockey League. He accomplished that, following in the footsteps of three of his uncles -- Hec, Ken and Wally. After a professional career that spanned 15 years, including three consecutive Calder Cup championships in the American Hockey League and 26 games in the NHL -- one with the Detroit Red Wings in 1957-58 and 25 with the Los Angeles Kings, and scoring the first goal in their history -- Kilrea became a coach.

Kilrea first stepped behind the bench of the 67's on Sept. 27, 1974 -- his first win -- and, except for a brief stint as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders and as a scout, he's been behind it ever since.

WINNINGEST COACHES
League Coach (*-active) Wins
NHL Scotty Bowman 1,244
CHL/OHL Brian Kilrea* 1,007
NCAA Ron Mason 924
He also shows no signs of slowing down. The 68-year-old Ottawa native ended such speculation by signing a 10-year contract extension with the club in July, three months after winning his fifth OHL coach of the year award. No other coach in the league -- company that includes such NHL notables as Terry Crisp, Jacques Martin, Roger Neilson, Mike Keenan and Craig Hartsburg -- has ever won it more than twice.

Besides sending his share of skilled players to the NHL, he also sent many players who weren't as gifted but made it because of the determination and hard work they learned under his guidance. He also produced a few players who turned into legendary tough guys in the NHL, like Ed Hospodar (1,314 penalty minutes in 450 games) and Behn Wilson (1,480 PIMs in 601 games).

"There is no one more deserving of this honor than Brian Kilrea," said David Branch, OHL commissioner and president of the CHL of Kilrea's impending induction. "This is a fitting tribute to the lifelong dedication and contributions that Brian and his family have made to the game of hockey."

As a coach, he's as up-to-date as anyone on Xs and Os, strategies and systems. But as a molder of men, he's something of a throwback to another era.

On a Brian Kilrea's teams, players have a dress code. They are polite and respectful (under penalty of feeling his wrath) to everyone they meet, from the team bus driver to the league president. He does not allow hazing or team initiations, and he insists that players remove their hats (though these days they're actually caps) whenever they enter a restaurant.

Kilrea is a hockey coach first, but he recognizes an obligation to help develop the person as well.

More than a few years back, a player had violated team rules by attempting to initiate a rookie on the team bus. When the team got home, Kilrea traded that player before he got to the rink the next day.

"I felt it was a point that needed to be made," he said. "It's about respect. The 67's are a team, and a team has rules. Young people need to learn those things.

"At this level it's all about teaching. Junior (hockey) is more of an educational process and a player will get a chance to learn from his mistakes, whereas in the pro game, if a player doesn't put out to the utmost of his abilities over a period of time, he will be replaced in the lineup by someone who will."

After Monday, 67's players will have a Hall of Famer as a teacher. But as they have been for the better part of 27 seasons, Brian Kilrea's lessons will be the same.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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