The writing was not on the wall for John Druce.
Last year the 52-year-old retired NHL forward, who collected 239 points in
531 games between Washington, Winnipeg, Los Angeles and Philadelphia over a
10-year career, was the head coach of the Cobourg Cougars.
Druce started with the Ontario Junior Hockey League team late in the
2015-16 season, and took over as head coach for the 2016-17 campaign. Under
Druce, the Cougars put together their most successful season in franchise
history, winning the RBC Cup on home ice last spring.
It was a dream start to Druce’s coaching career, one that turned into a
nightmare just five months later.
The Cougars had only three returning players from the championship-winning
roster and stumbled out of the gates, beginning the 2017-18 season with a
7-7-1-2 record. Druce was relieved of his duties on Halloween.
“We were pretty much starting from scratch,” he explained. “We were a .500
team and I thought we’d be better after Christmas after some of our new
players adapted to the league a bit more, but management had different
plans. That’s hockey. Things change in a heartbeat.
“I was very disappointed. As a coach, you put your heart and soul into
working with the kids every day at the rink, and then it’s taken away. But
ultimately that door closed and another opened.”
Two months after being let go by the Cougars, their OJHL rival the
Wellington Dukes came calling – “completely out of the blue.”
Out of the blue is right. The Dukes had a 13-point lead atop the North-East
Conference when GM Ryan Woodward resigned, leading to a major shake-up. The
Dukes now found themselves without a head coach and, as luck would have it,
Druce didn’t have a team.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
“It was quite a surprise to get the call,” said Druce. “My reaction was
definitely shock, then I tried to find out what was going on there. It
became clear they wanted a fresh start and I was ready to come in with a
fresh mindset, so it was good fit.”
Former NHLer and Dukes alumnus Derek Smith was brought in as Druce’s
assistant and although the pair had never met prior to partnering behind
the bench, they clicked right away. Druce credits Smith with having helped
ease his transition to Wellington, which was a balancing act of trying not
to rock the boat, while also establishing some dominance.
After leading a few practices and assessing the Dukes, Druce was ready to
take the team to the next level.
“We found out pretty quickly they were a skilled team, but we needed to
ensure they were ready to play tough, playoff hockey and do the little
things it takes to win. We brought in structure, we worked on details and
that was a big focus.”
Was it a big wake up call for the team?
“Absolutely,” said Druce, matter-of-factly. “There was a big adjustment
period and we went through good winning stretches and bad losing stretches,
but the guys saw what they needed to do to win and they adapted, they’ve
really bought in and I’m very proud of them.”
The Dukes have thrived under Druce, winning their way to the RBC Cup and
bringing their head coach back to Canada’s National Junior A Championship.
No team has played more hockey to get to RBC Cup than the Dukes, and no
team has come closer to elimination. Seven of Willington’s 30 playoff games
were do-or-die, and they’re still standing. Druce said the experience
gained having to win Game 7s in each of the first two rounds provided
invaluable confidence and brought his team together like never before.
The 2017 RBC Cup was an eye-opener in terms of the tempo and quality of
hockey. That’s to be expected when you’re playing well into May, but Druce
won’t be caught off guard this time around. He wants Wellington focused,
structured and playing within its game plan.
If that’s the case, look out.
“I have nothing but high expectations for us, without being cocky about it.
That’s not what I believe in. We have a good chance because we worked our
butts off to get here and we’ve earned a chance to play for it. What the
outcome will be, who knows, but we’ll give it our best shot.”