This is part of a series of features on the 12 head coaches in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League that will run every Friday throughout the summer. The intent is to familiarize the fans with those who are in charge of the various clubs as there has been a significant turnover in the last couple of seasons. Often ready to take a backseat to the players as those are the ones who deserve to be in the spotlight, the coaches and general managers shoulder the responsibility for putting the product on the ice and rightfully deserve credit for making the SJHL one of the premiere Junior “A” leagues in the country.
Call it empty-nest syndrome, a mid-life desire or just a natural passion; whatever the reason is really doesn’t matter as Rich Pilon’s jump back into hockey is exciting for players and fans alike and the Weyburn Red Wings will undoubtedly be huge beneficiaries from his vast knowledge of the game.
“The winters get pretty long,” joked Pilon when asked why he decided now was the time to return to the game as Weyburn’s head coach and general manager. “With the kid being gone (his son Garrett is part of the Washington Capitals system) and my wife doing her thing I thought this might be an opportunity to see what I might want to do down the road.”
Pilon has followed a long road in hockey beginning in St. Louis, Sask., where he grew up learning the game. By the time he was 16 he was playing Midget AAA in Prince Albert and the following year he got his first taste at the major junior level with the Western Hockey League’s Prince Albert Raiders.
With just six WHL regular-season games under his belt the New York Islanders took a flyer on him in the 1986 draft selecting him in the seventh round, 143rd overall. His two full seasons with the Raiders that followed proved the Islanders knew what they were looking at as Pilon registered 72 points in 133 games while amassing 369 minutes in penalties over that span.
Having his first junior coach, Terry Simpson, as his initial coach in the NHL, and his second junior coach, Rick Wilson, becoming an assistant with the Islanders when he turned professional certainly smoothed the way for Pilon, but his talent was undeniable and attractive for a club rebuilding from a dynasty that was five years removed from winning four straight Stanley Cups.
Pilon would spend more than a decade on the Island before being dealt to the cross-town rival Rangers and ultimately finishing his career in St. Louis (Missouri, not Saskatchewan) with the Blues. In 631 games Pilon totalled eight goals and 69 assists to go with 1745 penalty minutes.
Pilon and his family retired to Saskatoon where he would watch Garrett develop while also getting his first coaching experience with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades. Pilon was also involved with several of Garrett’s teams over the years, but the position with Weyburn is his biggest role behind the bench and he is excited to see what he can bring to the table.
“As a coach I know I want my team to be competitive,” says Pilon. “The players have to come ready to work hard, compete and have trust in other people.”
“It will definitely be a challenge,” added Pilon. “The toughest part will be not knowing what you have.”
To that point Pilon has wasted little time in altering the Red Wings’ make-up as he was involved in a handful of deals immediately following the league meetings at the beginning of June. Two of those deals saw a pair of key pieces – Cade Kowalski to the Battlefords and Jordan Kazymyra to Humboldt – being moved from last year’s club that finished with an 18-34-5-1 record. Those moves appear to be an attempt to bolster a team that barely qualified for the post-season in the spring and with the playoff set-up being changed to just the top eight teams advancing after the regular season then work needs to be done as Weyburn would have been on the outside looking in if the elimination of the Wild Card round would have occurred a year ago.
Injuries played a major role in Weyburn having long stretches of futility last season and while that is an unavoidable aspect of the game, Pilon is hoping that establishing some depth in the line-up will help get them through tough times.
It will undoubtedly be a learning curve for Pilon and the Red Wings, but it is expected to be a short adjustment as his experience will certainly strengthen the club and the league.