Dallas Eakins did not deserve the kind of homecoming he experienced on Saturday.
After spending the last seven seasons coaching in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization -- the past four as the AHL Toronto Marlies head coach -- Eakins returned, but lost.
His young Edmonton Oilers have struggled out of the gate. They led four different times in Toronto, but dropped a 6-5 decision in overtime
in another difficult lesson for this defensively and goalkeeper-challenged club that has fallen to 1-3-1.
Eakins got his start as a coach in the Maple Leafs organization, led the Marlies to a Calder Cup final and coached 14 players on the current Toronto roster if you count how he briefly mentored like Morgan Rielly, Josh Leivo and David Broll.
The Eakins story has plenty of feel-good chapters, but when the Maple Leafs chose Randy Carlyle over him as head coach
back in March 2012, it was a decision that deeply hurt Eakins. He has mentioned many times he needed a month to overcome the disappointment.
In hindsight, the Leafs made the right call. Carlyle has been the perfect tonic to push this organization to respectability.
He doesn't have a Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger on defence, or Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry or Teemu Selanne in his prime up front, like Carlyle did with the 2006-07 Stanley Cup-champion Anaheim Ducks.
But he has turned Toronto into a playoff team. He cajoles his players to play hard and they're winning. There still is a ways to go for this team to be considered a title contender, but Carlyle has been the main person responsible for the turnaround.
There are not many coaches out there, Eakins included, who could have matched what Carlyle's been able to accomplish with the Maple Leafs in the past 19 months.
But whether you're an Oilers fan or the Maple Leafs or neither, the 46-year-old Eakins is an easy person to cheer for. His strengths are his communication skills and his thoughtfulness. Most who have played for him have nothing but positive remarks about the experience.
Eakins has touched many, but he moved the hockey world 10 years ago after the tragic death of Atlanta Thrashers forward Dan Snyder, who passed away from injuries he suffered in a car driven by his then teammate Dany Heatley that crashed.
Snyder and Eakins were teammates on the AHL Chicago Wolves. As a tribute, in his final season of pro hockey, Eakins wore Snyder's No. 37 with the Manitoba Moose.
Eakins was a late starter to hockey. He was born in Dade City, Fla., where his father worked as a long-distance truck driver. Sick of the grind, Eakins's father, who was raised in Lindsay, Ont., packed up the family and moved to nearby Peterborough.
At age eight, Dallas learned to skate. But he developed fast enough to land a spot with the hometown Petes and before he knew it, 10 years after he first put on a pair of skates, the defenceman was drafted by the Washington Capitals in the 10th round.
It was in Peterborough, where Eakins was coached and heavily influenced by the late Roger Neilson. Already passionate about the game, Eakins had his hockey education deepened through video sessions with Neilson and hanging out with him at his cottage in the summer.
Eakins wound up scratching out a 16-year pro career that saw him wear the sweaters of 18 different National, American and International Hockey League clubs.
He played a whopping 1,104 regular season and playoff games combined with the Baltimore Skipjacks, Moncton Hawks, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, Cincinnati Cyclones, Panthers again, Worcester IceCats, St. Louis Blues, Jets again, Springfield Falcons, Phoenix Coyotes, Binghamton Rangers, New York Rangers, New Haven Beast, Panthers again, Toronto Maple Leafs, St. John's Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, Chicago Wolves, Calgary Flames, Wolves again, Flames again, Wolves again and, finally, the Manitoba Moose.
That adds up to a bevy of bench bosses, including Neilson with the Panthers and Blues.
At his first NHL training camp with the Capitals, future Hall of Famer Rod Langway helped Eakins and tutored him on the finer details of patrolling the blue line.
Later, his teacher was Carlyle. In fact, Eakins rookie NHL year was with the Jets in Carlyle's final season. As Eakins mentioned to Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman
in his outstanding feature on Saturday, Eakins played with Carlyle in his final NHL game and to this day he has one of Carlyle's sticks on display in his office along with other players such as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
It's a neat connection. Just like Eakins coaching the Oilers. Guess what team Neilson earned his only Stanley Cup ring with? That's right, the Oilers. Edmonton hired him as a video analyst for the 1984 playoffs and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup that spring.
It would be nice to see Eakins get the Oilers back there. It looks like a long shot after five games, but this is one person you never count out.
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