Habscheid one of a kind, one of the WHL’s all-time greats

Marc Habscheid is the type of personal coach that is becoming a rare breed in the sports world today.

These days it seems coaches in elite level sports just want to coach their teams or athletes. If any type of promotional work needs to be done to sell the team or athletes to the community by making public appearances or doing interviews with the media, it feels like those types of things are a burden.

For Habscheid, those things were never a burden. Growing up on a farm just outside of Swift Current, Habscheid never lost his sense of community.

When I first started covering the WHL way back in January of 2000, Habscheid was the head coach of the Kelowna Rockets, and my early years on the WHL beat were the first times we crossed paths.

In December of 2003, I was in my third year as a sports reporter with the Daily Herald, and the Rockets were slated to be in Prince Albert to face the Raiders for a game on the 12th of that month. The Rockets had overage star netminder and Prince Albert product Kelly Guard on their roster, and he backstopped the Rockets to a WHL championship in 2002-03.

The Rockets of that era were easy to deal with, and I was trying to track down Guard for an interview for an advancer story before the game. As the Rockets were on the road, I remember being told to contact Habscheid to talk to Guard.

I had Habscheid’s cell number for some time at that point. I gave his phone a call, and he was happy to hear from me and we had a short little catch up chat.

I asked about getting Guard thinking the team might still be on the bus. Habscheid told me they were at a rink in Saskatoon preparing to take the ice for practice.

He was in the dressing room and said he would get Guard for me right that moment. He called Guard over, and we did the interview.

That is the type of thing that doesn’t happen anymore, and back then, there were a few more coaches out there that would do what Habscheid did but it was still a hit and miss type thing.

My journey writing about the WHL then took me to the Medicine Hat News at the start of the 2004-05 campaign to cover the Medicine Hat Tigers. Habscheid left the Rockets after guiding them to a Memorial Cup title as the host team in the 2003-04 campaign to guide Hockey Canada’s national men’s team program as head coach.

Our paths crossed again when Habscheid became the head coach and general manager of the Chilliwack Bruins as the start of the 2009-10 season. He stayed with the franchise after it relocated to Victoria and became the Royals for the 2011-12 campaign.

Due to Habscheid working for teams in the Western Conference, you didn’t get to see him or his teams a whole lot in the Eastern Conference. During the trips the Bruins/Royals made to Medicine Hat during Habscheid’s three seasons with that franchise, he was always friendly and did catch up visits with myself, Tigers legendary play-by-play voice Bob Ridley and long time rink staffers that he knew.

In 2009-10, checking left-winger Colton Grant, who played the previous three seasons for the Tigers, was playing out his WHL career as an overager with the Bruins. I remember him raving about how awesome it was playing for Habscheid and the neat team building things he usually built into the season.

Some of those things included stopping at a small centre to break up a long stretch on the bus during a road trip with an outdoor practice that was like a fun scrimmage. When the team was on the road and a player was going to be playing in his hometown, Habscheid often worked logistics to allow the hometown player to stay with his family.

Grant said his time in the WHL was blessed because he got to play under Tigers legendary head coach and general manager Willie Desjardins and Habscheid.

After Habscheid left the Bruins/Royals franchise, I wasn’t sure where his next coaching stop would be. To my surprise, he was named Raiders head coach on November 1, 2014 as a midseason replacement for Cory Clouston.

The move was a surprise, because Habscheid didn’t have any previous hockey ties to Prince Albert. When Curtis Hunt became the Raiders general manager before the start of the 2015-16 season, I had guarded optimism that this would be the combination that got the Raiders to the point they could win the WHL title.

The optimism was guarded, because I learned long ago how tough it is to win in the WHL. I still thought the Raiders would hit the point they would be viewed as a top three franchise on the circuit that players wanted to go play for.

I relocated to Saskatoon in the summer of 2014, and when Habscheid came to the Raiders, we just rolled. The comfort level was high due to having known each other for an extended time by that point.

The Raiders did indeed make memories that would last forever. They built up to the point where the magical 2018-19 campaign happened.

Prince Albert finished first overall in the WHL regular season standings with a 54-10-2-2 record and made it all the way to the WHL Championship Series. They would take Game 7 of that set in fairytale fashion with Dante Hannoun scoring in overtime to allow the Raiders to down the Vancouver Giants 3-2 in front of 3,289 spectators at the 2,580 seat Art Hauser Centre and capture the WHL title for the second time in team history.

The team building fun things still happened. That was best seen on February 9, 2019, when Habscheid picked up his 500th career WHL regular season win as a head coach with a 6-5 victory over the Hurricanes in Lethbridge. The Raiders did a fun team picture in the dressing room where Habscheid wore a top hat the team usually gave to the hardest working player.

The team proceeded to head to a Lethbridge area Dairy Queen, where Habscheid paid for whatever the players wanted to order as part of the milestone celebration.

The strong team play on the ice that was a trademark of Habscheid’s past teams continued with the Raiders. On another intangible front, Habscheid was able to link the current Raiders as a group that committed to continuing on the team’s storied past going back to the Terry Simpson days, when the Raiders won the Centennial Cup four times as national junior A champions and the Memorial Cup in 1985 as CHL Champions.

The Raiders can be described by the romantic notion of the “team where honour still matters,” and the Raiders under Habscheid played true to that motto. While he didn’t grow up in “Hockey Town North,” it still felt like Habscheid had always been part of the community with how much he knew about the Raiders tradition and how respectful he was of restoring it and carrying it on.

The way the Raiders under Habscheid carried themselves made one think back to the teams that Simpson had.

That included playing into the fact the fans enjoyed watching the Raiders down their archrivals in the Saskatoon Blades, which saw Habscheid have some verbal exchanges with former Blades head coach Mitch Love.

When it was announced on Thursday that Habscheid was stepping down as head coach of the Raiders to take a head coaching position in the professional ranks in Europe, there were mixed emotions. I always felt as long as Habscheid and Hunt were around the Raiders were always in good hands, and the team would be alright even when the struggles and the down times came.

It is near impossible to find someone who will be better in the head coaching role than Habscheid, who has the fifth most regular season wins in the history of the WHL at 582. Still, Habscheid, who is 59-years-old, wanted a new challenge and the professional opportunity in Europe becoming the first head coach of the Bemer Pioneers Vorarlberg located in Feldkirch, Austria, would do just that.

In the Raiders farewell release for Habscheid, the legendary bench boss said he thought he had an idea of what it would be to coach the Raiders and reality far exceeded his initial ideas.

He used the “once a Raider, always a Raider” line to show he will always identify being part of the team. With how long I’ve known Habscheid, I would say coaching the Raiders has been the highlight of his coaching career, which included the 2018-19 WHL Champion Raiders rallying to support him after his father, Nicholas, passed in June of 2018.

Habscheid will always be thankful and show love for his time in Prince Albert coaching the Raiders. It is safe to say the people of Prince Albert will reflect those sentiments back to Habscheid and cherish the time he spent in “Hockey Town North.”

Could Truitt be Habscheid’s successor again?

WHL history could repeat itself, when the Raiders hire Habscheid’s successor as head coach.

Before Hunt looks outside the organization, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had a discussion with assistant coach Jeff Truitt about the Raiders head coach position. The 57-year-old Truitt has coached hockey at a high level for a long time experiencing lots of success along the way.

He was Habscheid’s successor once before. When Habscheid left the Rockets following the 2003-04 campaign to become the head coach of Hockey Canada’s national men’s team, Truitt was already on Kelowna’s coaching staff.

He was promoted from associate coach to head coach. Before holding the role of associate coach, Truitt had been a Rockets assistant coach from 2000 to 2003 on Habscheid’s staff.

As head coach, Truitt guided the Rockets to a WHL title win in the 2004-05 campaign. He held the head coach role for two more seasons before departing to the professional ranks taking an assistant coach position with the now defunct Springfield Falcons, who were the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers at that time.

Truitt reunited with Habscheid joining the Raiders as an assistant coach before the start of the 2018-19 WHL title winning campaign. Before joining the Raiders, Truitt was an associate coach with the Red Deer Rebels from November 14, 2012 through to the end of the 2017-18 campaign, when he mutually parted ways with the Red Deer side.

Of course, Truitt, who is a product of Rosetown, Sask., would have to decide where his life situation is at, and if becoming the Raiders head coach would be a good fit for him.

For the Raiders, it would be beneficial to bring in someone who could continue the work that Habscheid has done with the team over the years. Truitt would be a natural first choice.

If taking on a head coaching role isn’t a fit for Truitt at this point in time in his life, then the Raiders head coaching search becomes a little harder.

With that said, the Raiders need to find a head coach that can fit into the team culture that has been established and can continue building on what has already been done.

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