With one eye on the ice and the other on a potential fourth Ontario Hockey League championship, Brian (Killer) Kilrea is embarking on the final chapters of his 32-year Hall of Fame coaching career.
Fans will remember his five Memorial Cup appearances and two victories with the Ottawa 67's. Current and former players will remember the cigar-chomping coach's one-liners and sense of humour.
Rival coach Larry Mavety of the Kingston Frontenacs will remember his friendship and one particular act of kindness when Kilrea left the 67's in 1984 for a two-year stint as an assistant coach with the NHL's New York Islanders.
"He phoned me and he offered me a player and I said: 'What are you doing phoning me? You're supposed to be gone to the Islanders,'" Mavety, who was with the Belleville Bulls at the time, told CBCSports.ca. "He said: 'Well, I have a player and the guy we got here coaching [in Ottawa] doesn't like him, and I think he's a pretty good player. He's tough and does a lot of things.'
"I ended up taking the kid [left-winger Todd Hawkins] for a late-round [draft] pick. They were going to cut him and he came in, and got 40-plus goals and was a big part of the club that went to the OHL finals.
"I think from that moment on, I knew that [Kilrea] was a guy if you were going to do business with, he was upfront and honest."
Praises from Mavety
Mavety and Kilrea have hooked up for a few trades over the years.
"I haven't won very many of them," said Mavety, who first met Kilrea at training camp with the American Hockey League's Springfield Indians in 1962.
"He was a guy that gave me some advice and it turned out to be very good advice," the 66-year-old Mavety said of Kilrea, 74. "He's been great for hockey, in general, and great for junior hockey.
"He was instrumental in a lot of changes that have been made in the [OHL]. You don't get in the [Hockey] Hall of Fame  if you haven't done something good."
Kilrea, who once turned down head-coaching offers from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks after returning from the Islanders, will take an all-time record of 1,193-771-153 with 39 overtime/shootout losses in 2,156 games into the playoffs with the 67's.
The winningest coach in Canadian Hockey League history will remain with Ottawa next season as general manager and part-time scout.
In a one-on-one interview, he discussed his memorable OHL playoff runs, experience coaching in the NHL and where the nickname Killer originated.
CBCSports.ca: In 30 years behind the 67's bench, you have had only six losing seasons, won three OHL titles and two Memorial Cup championships. Describe some of your more memorable playoff battles.
Kilrea: There's two I remember vividly. One was in 2005. We were a sixth-place team then, and all of a sudden we went in and won the first game in the opposing rink [Barrie], then knocked them out. We went on to the next series [against Sudbury], won the first game in their rink and knocked them out.
We ended up going to the Memorial Cup that year and were on nobody's radar. We went in and gave London a good battle, and unfortunately when we got into the semifinals, Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic knocked us out. That was an underdog year for us. Our team just came together.
The other one was in 1988 against Paul Theriault and the Oshawa Generals. They had us down [three games to none in Round 1] and we were the favourites. They beat us twice in our rink and we had to go back to their rink for Game 4. We tied it with 22 seconds to go in the third period and won in overtime. We had one fella by the name of Dave Gibbons and in the dressing room after the game, he says, 'Lads, we got 'em right where we want 'em. We just laughed and that took any pressure off. We came back and won the next three games, each one by five goals.
CBCSports.ca: Did you ever envision coaching 2,100 games in the OHL?
Kilrea: Never. When I started [with the 67's in 1974], I signed for one year. There were never any of these two-year, three-year, four-year contracts. The secret to longevity is to get to be good friends with the owners because they don't want to fire a friend. We had some tough years under [Howard Darwin and Earl Montagano's ownership]. Howard never interfered with the hockey end of it and either did Earl. We had some success and a few tough years, they understood and so that's the reason I could stay so long.
In 1999, when they [were] sold to [current owner] Jeff Hunt, he wanted me to sign a contract and I said: 'you don't need one. I'll tell you my word's good. Your word's good. Fine.' He said: 'Well, I deal in contracts,' and I said: 'Well, I don't.' I never had a contract with Howard and Earl. It was a verbal agreement and a handshake. Jeff was afraid that if he bought the team and I left, because there were rumours that I could leave, he didn't want to replace Brian Kilrea as coach. I never did sign a contract and I don't have one now.
CBCSports.ca: Recently retired slotback Milt Stegall kept a journal of his memories during his final season in the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Have you done the same?
Kilrea: I didn't do that, but one thing is I still have a great memory. I can remember things, players, as far back as growing up as a kid. A lot of the rinks have given me some kind words on the scoreboard and also small gifts, such as a couple of cigars. I remember the people I worked with and against for so many years, so when I see [London Knights co-owners Dale and Mark Hunter] come on the ice to shake my hand, that is special. I was in the [OHL] when the Hunters were drafted [to the NHL]. They went through their careers and now they're back giving back to junior hockey.
I coached [Windsor Spitfires co-owner] Warren Rychel when he was in Ottawa. I got him a tryout with the Chicago Blackhawks, who signed him [in 1986].
So when I think of all the people I'm meeting during my last go-around as coach, I look forward to it and appreciate it. But when the games start, that's over.
CBCSports.ca: What was your favourite city or rink to visit?
Kilrea: Kitchener. We won our first Memorial Cup in Kitchener in 1984. Brad Shaw was our captain and he was from Kitchener. And we had to win the OHL championship in Kitchener. The fans were always good, they appreciated the opposition. Take a look at their attendance. It's always good. You have to give them credit for being loyal. If you wanted a model rink, it was always spotless and the people around Kitchener were always friendly and would do anything for you. And they've maintained that through the years, so it was easy to like Kitchener.
CBCSports.ca: You left the 67's in 1984 to be an assistant to head coach Al Arbour with the NHL's New York Islanders and returned two years later when your contract wasn't renewed. Describe that period of your coaching career?
Kilrea: I don't regret it one bit. I think it was the greatest move I ever made. I went to New York, I found out I could coach. I never met so many pros that were so polite and courteous. When you think of some of the names: the Bossys, the Trottiers, the Potvins, the Billy Smiths, Clarke Gillies, Bobby Nystrom. They were very respectful.
After the two years I was there, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but they [management] didn't think my coaching style was what they wanted. They wanted me to live on Long Island and I said: 'I live in Ottawa.' And they said: 'Al [Arbour] moved here and lived here.' They also thought I was a little too close to the players because the players used to call and ask if they could watch some video and come to my house.
When I came back, Ottawa had a couple of tough years. I knew I could coach in the National [Hockey] League and I satisfied myself, so I didn't have to pursue [any other NHL jobs]. Ottawa had recently [fired head coach Bob Ellett] and [management] asked me if I wanted to come back. I was lucky it worked out that way and they took me back. I stayed and then I was offered a couple of [NHL] jobs the first and second year I was back. One was to be head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the other was Chicago.
But I couldn't go to [67s ownership] and say I was leaving again. Plus, I had already committed to some of the players and went to see them [in the summer]. My dad always told me things work out for the best, and it did.Brian Kilrea is a five-time OHL coach of the year and two-time Canadian Hockey League coach of the year. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)
CBCSports.ca: Your first and only 50-win season behind the 67's bench came in 1983-84, the year of the team's first-ever Memorial Cup victory. What was special about that group of young men and that season?
Kilrea: That was the year I came back from the world junior [hockey championship] in Sweden and did a couple of things [with the 67's] that the Europeans did: shorter shifts and move the puck a little bit on the power play. We ended up going through the playoffs to the Memorial Cup. We had a couple of injuries the day before in the semifinal game when [defenceman] Brad Shaw went off with an eye injury.
The other injured player was Mark Patterson, who was just a bull on the blue-line, just defensively tough, strong and mean, and good. He sprained his ankle. We didn't know if we were going to have either one of them for the final game. Mark Patterson came in the room with crutches, threw them away and said: 'I'm playing. I don't care how tight you squeeze this ankle. Tape it and get it in a skate.' Brad Shaw had to wear a [face] mask but after two shifts took it off and he was basically playing with a splint in one eye and we ended up winning the Memorial Cup 7-2 [over Kitchener].
Seeing those two guys in the room just lifted everybody. We could hardly wait to get to the ice. That's how emotionally ready they were when they saw what these two guys did. [Former NHLer] Darren Pang was our goalie and he made the big saves when we needed them.
CBCSports.ca: The nickname Killer. Who gave it to you and when?
Kilrea: When I went to my first [professional] training camp, I was with Detroit, and I was known as Brian. They sent me to Troy, Ohio [to play for the International Hockey League Bruins]. Nellie Podolski was my first coach and his best player was a fella by the name of Stevie Gaber. Steve and him were watching a game I was playing and Nellie said: 'I watched that one guy, Kil, Kilrea or Kil-something, he's one of the guys we may get. I think they call him Killer', which I had been because of the play on words for Kilrea to Killer. Stevie Gaber said: 'If he's a killer, he's a baby-faced killer.' Luckily, the baby-faced dropped and the Killer stuck, so when I went to Troy, Ohio, everybody then got to know me as Killer. That was back in 1955.
I've had different nicknames. When I was a kid they say I was a happy baby. There was a comic strip in the 1930s called Giggles. They were calling me Giggles, it went to Giggy and then went to Gig. I was Gig Kilrea in Ottawa. People would call my parents' house and ask if Gig was there. The teachers at school would call me Brian, but everyone else called me Gig.
CBCSports.ca: How are you leaving the 67's, with third-year assistant coach Chris Byrne taking over behind the bench?
Kilrea: I've been fortunate. I've had so many good kids. We'll have some good kids [in the future] that will leave a mark. They'll come in and rave about Chris because he's good, he's technically good and he's got a good sense of humour. He'll give it right back because you've got to be as sharp as the kids.
CBCSports.ca: What would it mean to pull off the OHL championship and win a third Memorial Cup behind the Ottawa bench?
Kilrea: It would certainly be a great way to go out. Everybody says you should go out on top. The [coaches] that can are very fortunate. Should this team take us to the Memorial Cup, you give all the credit in the world to the players because as coaches you can outline things and tell them here's weakness and strengths, but it's the players' ability to get the job done and I've never lost sight of that. If they go out and work as hard as they can, that's fine. If it's not good enough, we had a pretty good run, I had a pretty good run and met some great kids over the time.
I've always said the same thing: Players win, players lose, but we contribute in our own small way in helping them maybe to be a little bit better and maybe to work on something. But when we lose, we lose as a team. And when we win, we win as a team. As coaches, you're just a small part.
CBCSports.ca: You're a five-time OHL coach of the year and two-time Canadian Hockey League coach of the year. What would you like your legacy to be?
Kilrea: That I did my best and the players that came to the Ottawa 67's, I hope they can walk away saying I learned a little, I improved and I had fun because the juniors are the best years, the best days of your life. They will create friendships in junior that will last longer than friendships that they create when they're pro.