Dave Hunchak, head coach of the Kamloops Blazers, has been called a great teacher of hockey players.
But he's the first to admit that he's still learning - and probably always will be.
Hunchak and the Blazers are getting ready for the WHL's regular season, which they will open Friday, 7 p.m., against the Kelowna Rockets at Interior Savings Centre. Hunchak is in his first season as head coach of the Blazers, after spending two seasons as an associate coach beside Guy Charron. Charron stepped aside in the offseason and now is in an advisory role - Hunchak still has the ability to lob ideas at Charron, and you can bet he appreciates Charron's input.
This isn't Hunchak's first time working as a WHL head coach - he spent four seasons in charge of the Moose Jaw Warriors, from 2007-11. In his final season with the Warriors, 2010-11, he led Moose Jaw to a 40-26-6 record, good enough for fifth in the Eastern Conference.
But the Warriors decided not to renew his contract in the spring of 2011, and he ended up in Kamloops as an associate coach a few months later. It's not very often a team will move forward without a coach that led it to a 40-win season, but Hunchak didn't mope - instead, he used the opportunity to learn.
"The biggest thing is you have to keep learning every day," says Hunchak.
He has been doing that for 20 years now.
Hunchak's coaching career began in the early 1990s, after he played parts of three seasons with the Saskatoon Blades.
As he tells it, he started working with a midget club in Warman, Sask., which is a slap shot north of Saskatoon, and kept with it until he moved up to working as an assistant in junior A in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
In 2000, Hunchak was named head coach and general manager of the Kindersley Klippers. Over his four seasons in Kindersley, the Klippers won two SJHL titles and Hunchak was named the league's coach of the year in 2002.
He joined the Swift Current Broncos as an assistant coach for the 2004-05 season and, after three seasons in Speedy Creek, earned the head-coaching job in Moose Jaw.
"I've been very fortunate in my career to have been given opportunities to grow," Hunchak says. "I've been associated with a lot of great people to learn from."
One of those people is Lorne Molleken, his head coach with the Blades in the early 1990s. Molleken, who went on to coach with the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks around the turn of the century, returned to the Blades in 2004, and coached them until stepping aside in the offseason. Molleken remains the team's general manager.
"I played for Lorne and was really intrigued with how he handled his players and handled his teams," Hunchak says. "From there, it evolved . . . there's a lot of people.
"You go to NHL coaching clinics, or the (Kamloops Minor Hockey Association) coaching clinic or different clinics where you're not only a presenter but also a delegate, you end up meeting a lot of new people and a lot of new ideas."
An idea is just an idea without the drive and will to succeed.
Throughout his career, Hunchak has displayed a strong work ethic, something that probably came out of his first few seasons in the SJHL. Because working as an assistant coach wasn't exactly lucrative in terms of dollars and cents, Hunchak had to work two jobs - he also was an electrician.
"I had to work my first five years coaching junior hockey," he says. "It was a challenge . . . there were long days.
"The person who has made perhaps the biggest sacrifice for my career is my wife (Kim) and our kids (Alyssa and Brendan)."
What faces Hunchak this season is a project.
The Blazers' roster, which stood at 25 on Tuesday, is a young one, and there are plenty of opportunities for players to learn. For Hunchak and his associate coach, Mark Ferner, getting the players to buy in is the key.
"You teach all the time, but you adjust," Hunchak says. "I think our teams the past couple of season have been a little further ahead at this point because of their experience. . . .
"With younger guys, the No. 1 thing we preach is patience. The No. 2 thing is that you have to demand what you are expecting of them. They need to know what those demands are.
"With young players, a lot of the time, they are the best players coming from their programs, and when they get here, it's a real slap in the face," Hunchak continues. "You have to break them down and bring them back up again to the player that we feel they can become."
It sounds like a lot, but Hunchak won't have to go it alone.
Beside him is Ferner, who has extensive coaching experience in junior A and the WHL. Ferner, a former Kamloops Junior Oilers and NHL defenceman, spent a season and a half as head coach of the Everett Silvertips, before being let go partway through last season.
Before that, he had an extremely successful career with the BCHL's Vernon Vipers, winning two Royal Bank Cup Canadian junior A championships. Ferner also spent time as a Blazers' associate and head coach between 2002 and 2006.
So far, he and Hunchak have fit in together like a foot in a sock.
"It's a great relationship," Hunchak says. "There's a trust there, and I've gotten to know Mark well in the last little while.
"There's a lot of trust there, a lot of the same philosophies, and our messages are a bit different. He augments my weaknesses, and I think I can augment his weaknesses - that makes us a better coaching staff."
Ferner also has a lot to teach, and, because of the trust he and Hunchak have for one another, isn't afraid to do so.
"We talk every day about certain things, not only about the group but the systems as well," Ferner says. "Not that I've known him for too long, but he's a really smart guy, a really personable guy."
As the Blazers go forward, it appears as though the players have a lot to learn, and the teachers to help them.
"We ask the kids to get better every day," Ferner says. "The one thing that we can't overlook is where these players come from and trying to get them integrated into what we want them to do.
"It's a little bit tedious at times, but it's something that needs to be done."
If the players understand this, it could be the start of a nice relationship for the Blazers, especially with these two hockey minds coming together.
But Hunchak, as good as he is with strategy and systems, also knows there's a personal side to the game, especially when dealing with 16- to 20-year-old players.
"I think it's important that (the players) see the human side of you. Everybody knows who the coach is, but they need to understand the human side of you, too, and get to know you as a person," he says.
"The big thing with coaching is relationships, the relationships with your players. X's and O's - everyone's so good at it now and video's available, so there are no secrets anymore. It's about the relationships that you have with your players."