Every hockey team Hugh Christiaens coached was a better team at the end of the season then they were at the start. After learning about a possible book coming out, we invited him into studios to see if we could get him to share a few stories and maybe even reveal the winning formula!
What we learned is that Hugh was a great player before he was a bench boss. We also learned that he grew up around the rink. He grew up in Kindersley and lived across the street from the rink. He said he was always ready to help clean the ice or play for a team that was short.
"I was born and raised in Kindersley, in a hockey family. We lived, breathed, ate and talked about hockey morning, noon and night." He said that he fulfilled his Mom's dream of having a child go to University.
He went to the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and played hockey with the U of S Huskies. He also went on to play with Des Moines in the IHL. He had a short stint in Seattle (4 games) and then played 5 seasons in the WIHL with the Cranbrook Royals. He was a skilled scorer and played right wing, even though he shoots left. Not one to shy away from digging pucks out of corners, defending a teammate, or rattling the other team led to him having the penalty minutes of an enforcer.
He averaged a point a game at the pro level.
He was a player/coach for the Kindersley Senior Klippers in 1981 when he noticed that 3 of his nephews were on the same team, and they could use some guidance. "I said to Barb (wife) we're going to move there and I'm going to coach those kids next year." They never lost a game in the regular season. They found themselves in the provincial final, trailing by 7 goals with 5 minutes left in the second period.
"They took a couple penalties and we got a power play goal. Things are rocking now; we get another goal. I put a young fellow out there that hadn't seen too much ice time yet. Dale Weisbroad went out there and stood in front of their net and we got another goal."
"So it's 7 - 3, and Dale goes back out there. They tried to get him out from in front of the net. One guy tried to cross check him but Dale ducked and they took out their own goaltender. Right across the throat with a cross check! We get a couple more goals that period. It's 7 - 5 in game 1 of a two game total point series, Midget provincial final 1983."
What is said between periods in hockey dressing rooms is a mystery to most of the public. Kurt Russell's portrayal of the "The Miracle on Ice" speech by Herb Brooks was about the best Hollywood could do. Either Herb or Hollywood may have got that speech from Hughie! The 1980 US Olympic team responded with a come back win. Christiaens will come up with a good speech here and there, and we're going to let him finish the story.
"It was almost comical because I know I switched my goalies in and out four times. The team wasn't playing bad, but the other team could ice the puck and score a goal. So I have a chat with the boys and finally said 'don't let them get any more goals.' Yeah, it's not always that easy, but we ended up scoring four goals in the third period. We came home up two goals in the series, with a 9-7 win."
"When we got them here, we crunched them pretty good." Christiaens won SAHA midget provincials in his first year coaching. The younger Kindersley guys playing minor hockey were ready to go to war for Hughie. "It carried on from the 82-83 season to 83-84, 84-85, 85-86 until unfortunately we had a pretty bad wreck. The Swift Current bus crash claimed the life of our good friend and and fellow player Trent Kresse."
Hugh says that he has a team of angels playing hockey for him. "Unfortunately poor Dale Weisbrod died out in the oil patch, and it's tough. It's one of those things, you have all these young players that play for you. You get to know them over the years and they give it all and you appreciate that. I really do have a team in heaven."
Hugh lightens the mood with a story about skating down the highway. He and some teammates could skate for 7 miles between Spokane and Cranbrook. They had a lifetime of stories come out of the one night. When the police came to check on highway conditions, he stopped by the hooligans that were passing pucks and skating around body-checking cars. The officer was from Kindersley. Hilarity ensues.
Hugh had the honour and privilege of guiding a senior hockey team to the Allan Cup. Senior hockey's version of the Stanley Cup. It's AAA hockey supremacy and everyone wanted there hands on it. Unity Miners had the team and they were hosting it in 96, with Hugh Christiaens at the helm.
He says the key to success, if he had to pick just one, "You have to have discipline and it's got to show on the ice. I may not be a shining example, but I never left the ice by myself. There was always somebody with me. My teams could be just as physical as anyone else. Because the entire team bought in, even the hot shots. They didn't have to go and run people over, but they didn't let anybody off the hook on any check. We were in shape, tough to play against, and we always rolled four lines. We would absolutely wear teams out."
Old habits are hard to break, and we found that Hugh is still working hard. He's wearing out a set of tires now, as he's driving around the province watching the game he loves. He mentioned that he was recently down to the South East corner of Saskatchewan chasing grandkids that were playing hockey in Weyburn.
If you call a family a type of team, he's still leading his team. It's evident that he is a valued member of every team, whether he's a player or a coach. The group improves when he's around.