AJHL hockey coach breaks record for most career wins

Whitecourt Wolverines head coach Gord Thibodeau snatched the record for the most career wins in the league during a game Friday against the Fort McMurray Barons.

Gord Thibodeau broke an Alberta Junior Hockey League record Friday in Fort McMurray

Gord Thibodeau behind the bench. (Fort McMurray Connect)

It's been a long road for Whitecourt Wolverines' head coach Gord Thibodeau. This weekend, the longest serving coach in the Alberta Junior Hockey League achieved something truly special. 

On Friday night, Thibodeau snagged the record for the most career wins in the league in a game against the Fort McMurray Barons. Going into the game, he was tied with legendary coach Don Phelps at 832 career wins.

Thibodeau, who started his career in the late 1990s in Lloydminster, is now into his 23rd year behind the bench.

A second game is scheduled in Fort McMurray this weekend.

'It's really surreal when you think about it, " Thibodeau said before achieving the record on Friday.

His Wolverines came into Friday's game on a seven-game winning streak.

What started out as a chance coaching gig in Lloydminster in 1997 has turned into a career that spans more than 1,700 regular season and playoff games.

"Every day you wake up in hockey it's a great day," Thibodeau said.

"I started to realize I was very fortunate. I was able to live my life doing a job that I love doing. You blink your eyes and here you are 23 years later and you're passing Don Phelps, which again is unreal."

Back in the early '80s, Thibodeau played in the league with the Fort Saskatchewan Traders. From there it was a stop at the University of Alberta, where he learned from one of the game's all-time greats, former Golden Bears coach Clare Drake. 

'I'm very proud of every player'

The list of players Thibodeau has coached or mentored is long.

His first year behind the bench was with current NHLer Scott Hartnell. More recently, St. Louis Blues defenceman Colton Parayko was on his blue line in Fort McMurray. 

The success of some of those NHL players aside, Thibodeau says he's proud of all of his players, past and present.

"You love to see those success stories, the kids that work hard, kind of make it to that next level," said Thibodeau, who has helped many players further their education by getting scholarships to National Collegiate Athletic Association schools in the United States.

"I'm very proud of every player," he said. "You know, Colton's in the NHL, that's awesome. But I'm just as proud of Mike Marianchuk, who's a fireman in Lethbridge."

'He healthy-scratched me'

In 1997, Hartnell was a 15-year-old hockey player living the dream, playing junior hockey in his home town with the Lloydminster Blazers.

"I thought that was pretty awesome, playing junior A hockey at 15, dreaming of the WHL, maybe wondering if one day I was going to be in the NHL," said Hartnell, a Columbus Blue Jackets forward now in his 16th NHL season.
Scott Hartnell when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Hartnell keeps in touch with Thibodeau whenever he's back home in Alberta.

Even 20 years later, Hartnell laughs when he recalls some of the tough lessons he learned from his former coach that he says helped shape him into the player he is today.

"He healthy-scratched me one game at home when I was 15, and I thought things were going pretty good," Hartnell said.

"I had some people come into town, and I was in the stands watching the game instead of playing. It was just a real wake-up call that I needed to have, and he was big enough to sit me out."

That was Thibodeau's first year of coaching in the league, and he had the reputation of being an 'old school' kind of coach. Hartnell said he was tough, but fair. 

"He talked to me after and said, this is why, you know this is what you can't do, and this is what you have been doing that's wrong, and you need to wake it up and get better."

Hartnell went on to play in the Western Hockey League before breaking into the NHL. He's now with his third NHL team.

Showdown in Fort McMurray 

​In 2006, Thibodeau won his only championship in the AJHL with the Fort McMurray Barons, a team he coached for 11 years. The same club will be in his way this weekend as he reaches for win No. 833.

"It's really fitting I think that fate should determine that I'd be at this number going into Fort Mac, " said Thibodeau.

"For the team to give me the opportunity to hopefully break that record would certainly be a dream come true." 

On the opposing bench will be Barons head coach Tom Keca.

He was an old-school coach who was able to stay a step ahead of the evolution of the game.- Oil Barons head coach Tom Keca

Keca and Thibodeau go back years and are friends on and off the ice. They coached together in Fort McMurray as well.

For Keca, whose team is just two points behind Thibodeau's in the standings, getting the four points this weekend remains the goal, but he knows Thibodeau isn't going to make it easy.

"I don't know whether it's poetic justice, or whether it's irony the fact that he's coming to Fort McMurray this weekend to break the record, " said Keca, who attributed Thibodeau's longevity to his ability to change with the game.

"He was an old-school coach who was able to stay a step ahead of the evolution of the game, in my opinion.

"Gord had the ability to always make sure that every single player understood what the expectations were, and he held players accountable. Gord had one set of rules for 23 players, it wasn't 23 sets of rules." 

The Fort McMurray Barons host the Whitecourt Wolverines this weekend.