Back in the early ’80s, when he was playing for the Edmonton Oilers, Marc Habscheid had an eye on coaching.
“When I was a player I kept notes and when I was done (my playing career) I had about 1200 pages. Just little ideas and things that interested me” said Habscheid. “It probably hurt me as a player because I analyzed too much instead of just playing. But coaching always interested me.”
Even if Habscheid’s tendency to overanalyze his own game hurt his playing career, there’s no arguing that it worked out in the long-run.
The Swift Current, Saskatchewan native made his NHL debut with the Oilers in the 1981 season, suiting up in 7 games and during his time in Edmonton he played on some pretty iconic teams.
That team, of course, featured not just some of the best players in Oilers history, but NHL history. When reflecting on his time around that group, it wasn’t the way that they clicked on the ice that stuck with Habschied, it was how they connected off the ice.
“You look back at that dressing room and half that team ended up in the Hall of Fame. As good of players as that group was, it was a better team. They cared about each other and the team and they looked out for one another. It was a bunch of great individuals, but a better team.”
While the sport has changed a lot since then, Habscheid believes every current player can learn something from the way that Oilers team was.
“The team dynamics, caring for each other, and helping one another, that goes through time. The game changes but caring and helping your teammates that goes on forever.”
He would go on to play 70 more games with the Oilers over the next three seasons before being dealt to the Minnesota North Stars in a deal that also involved current Oilers Assistant Coach Manny Viveiros. After a stint in Minnesota, he would make stops in Detroit and Calgary before his NHL career ended.
The last few years of his professional career were split between the Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL and various pro teams in Germany.
He was a true journeyman. With every different team, came a different coach as well. Habscheid touched on the impact that had on him and how it helped shape him as a coach.
“I had a journeyman career. I played internationally, in the minors, professionally and in Europe. I always tried to pick up something from everyone. Every coach has some things they do really well and some things I didn’t agree with. So I tried to learn from them and keep an open mind. Even today, I’m trying to get better.”
Having an open mind early in his career is something that made Habschied the coach he is today.
“The great thing with hockey is that when you look at who invented the game or how the game should be played, there’s no one there. It’s always open to opinion and open to different ideas,” said the 55-year-old.
Habschied has carved out quite an impressive resume since he took his first coaching job with the Melfort Mustangs of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League back in the mid-’90s. From there, he went on to become the Head Coach of the Kamloops Blazers for two seasons.
In 1999, he stepped behind the bench of the Kelowna Rockets. While there, he would win a WHL Championship in 2003 and a Memorial Cup in 2004. He was also named CHL Coach of the Year in 2003. His success in the WHL would eventually catch the attention of Hockey Canada.
Habschied would become the first player to ever represent Canada at the World Junior Championships as a player and as a coach when he stepped behind the bench for the 2003 tournament. That was just the beginning of a tremendous run with Hockey Canada. He would coach Canada to a gold medal at the 2004 Men’s World Championship and a silver at the 2005 event.
In 2006, he was given a chance to join Canada’s Olympic staff for the Winter Games in Turin.
He would make the transition back to junior hockey in June of 2009 becoming both the Head Coach and GM of the Chilliwack Bruins (who later became the Victoria Royals). That run would end in the 2011-12 season.
Now, Habschied is responsible for coaching the top-ranked junior team in the country, the Prince Albert Raiders.
Last season, the Raiders squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and almost upset a powerhouse Moose Jaw team in the first round, taking them to seven games.
Despite a strong finish to the 2017-18 campaign, expectations still weren’t very high around this Raiders club, which makes what they’re currently doing all the more incredible. The Raiders have lost just one game this season and hold a record of 25-1-0. The second-best record in the WHL belongs to the Vancouver Giants, who are 18-6-2. The gap between them and the rest of the WHL is substantial.
When asked about his team’s historic start, Habschied was quick to say that their work has only just begun.
“It would exceed anybody’s expectations to have the record that we do. No one really picked us to do much this year but that doesn’t matter. The fact we have this record right now doesn’t matter because I don’t think there’s a trophy or banner for first place after 25 games. It’s nice to have, but we still have a long ways to go.”
Even when I would ask the veteran coach about his teams play on the ice, he was fairly quick to dismiss it. I don’t think that’s a knock on their play, how could it be, but instead it speaks to just how proud he is of the type of young men he has in the locker room.
“People come up and say “Oh you broke this record and did that record” and really, they don’t really know about it or worry about it because they just enjoy being around each other and enjoy playing hockey.” said Habschied.
From watching them play on Wednesday night in Edmonton, I can tell you that there isn’t a lot that they don’t do exceptionally well. They play a fast paced game and the skill on their roster is abundant. Don’t mistake skill for being soft though, they actively look to make a physical impact every shift and aren’t afraid to get a chippy to assert their dominance.
One of the main reasons the Raiders have been so dominant has been their ability to consistently produce offence. Their 129 goals scored is 12 ahead of the second place Edmonton Oil Kings and 33 ahead of the third place Portland Winterhawks. That’s over a goal per game separating them from third place in the entire league.
Brett Leason has been the driver of their dominant offence. The 19-year-old has 59 points in 26 games and has grabbed a point in every single game this season (20 multi-point games).
When asked point-blank about what makes his superstar forward so special, Habschied was quick to compliment the type of man, and teammate Leason is.
“He’s a good person. Something that’s really telling is that his teammates are happier for him then he is. He’s been passed over twice in the (NHL) Draft, so he’s really humble and almost shy about the notoriety he’s getting. A real good guy, really open to learning, and obviously has some good natural skill as well”.
Those last two quotes really show what type of coach and human Marc Habscheid is. He’s been on NHL coaching staffs, Olympic and World Championship teams, but at there’s just something different about getting a chance to coach junior players.
“You’re teaching them about life. How to be a person first, then a hockey player. You can have a positive impact on them as people when they leave junior whether they go to the NHL or just into the workforce.”
That mindset is rare in junior hockey which, more than ever, is a result driven business. It was a breath of fresh air to hear a coach say things like this, especially the coach of the best team in the entire country.