Former Axemen Assistant Coach Cameron has seen it all

Regina Pats head coach Malcolm Cameron has seen it all

Malcolm CameronRegina Pats head coach Malcolm Cameron at practice at the Co-operators Centre on Wednesday November 27 2013.
Photograph by: Bryan Schlosser , Regina Leader-Post

ย On many a day, Malcolm Cameron has been a motor coach.

The Regina Pats’ head coach has grown accustomed to life on the buses, and not strictly because he is in his third season with the WHL team.

Most of his time on the iron lung has been spent as a player or coach in the minors – especially in the East Coast Hockey League.

Given that seasoning, the 44-year-old Cameron felt right at home during the Pats’ recent tour of the WHL’s U.S. Division. After all these years, and all these destinations, he is eminently qualified to discuss bus trips through the United States.

“When I coached in Texas and Florida, particularly, our closest road game was nine hours away, so we spent a lot of time on the road,” Cameron reflected before the Pats practised on Wednesday. “One time in Florida, I think we were gone 21 days on the road. It’s tough on families, for sure, but we came out of it pretty good.” Some things never change.

In the ECHL, Cameron iced some formidable teams that were typically strong on the road. As a first-year WHL head coach – someone who had assisted Pat Conacher in each of the past two seasons – Cameron guided his team to five victories in eight games during the recent road stretch, which also included stops in Alberta.

Although Cameron has retained his ability to extract victories from his team during an arduous road trip, he points out that the dynamics are different.

“At (the minor-league) level of hockey, you’re also battling the call-up factor,” Cameron noted. “You may have 22 guys on a Thursday. When you go to play on Friday, you’ve got 14. The ECHL, I called it the Ever-Changing Hockey League, because your roster was never the same, ever.

“For a coach, that’s certainly a battle each and every day, and you’ve got to try and find players to maybe jump in and fill some holes and play some minutes on your team when you’re down. This (recent) grind was very similar to that. The only difference was that

we always had sleeper buses back then, so I had a nice bed to sleep in on the road instead of two coach seats on a coach bus. I was able to sleep and get more rest.” With that in mind, should Pats owner Russ Parker and senior vice-president/general manager Chad Lang be in the market for a deluxe sleeper bus? “It would be great, but I’m not sure how many of those are out here,” Cameron responded. “Down in the southern United States, you’ve got a lot of those entertainer companies that haul the rock bands around.

“We were really lucky.

We dealt with a company out of Alabama for four or five years that had 25 sleepers, with satellite TV and a kitchen. It was just like a travelling motorhome. I’m not sure we have anything like that up here. We’d probably have to go to the U.S. “I’m not sure there would be a cost benefit – certainly the benefit, but I’m not sure if the cost part would work.” While recognizing the benefits, Cameron does not long for the days of on-board kitchens and satellite TVs.

“I’m more about the bed, to be honest with you,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t sleep much as it is when I’m on the road. A lot of nights, it’s three or four hours of sleep, and that’s it, to get ready for games.

“The nice bed, as opposed to sleeping across a couple of bus seats, would be great. But it’s junior hockey and all the coaches and all the teams in our league have to battle the same thing.” Cameron experienced his first minor-league battles as a right winger. Between 1993 and 1998, the affable product of Cole Harbour, N.S. – Sidney Crosby’s hometown – played in four different minor leagues while toiling for the Huntington Blizzard, San Antonio Iguanas, Saginaw Wheels, Johnstown Chiefs, Fort Worth Fire, Nashville Nighthawks, El Paso Buzzards and Amarillo Rattlers.

“I’d go through places (on road trips) when I played, like Amarillo and then El Paso, Texas, and then over to Albuquerque, New Mexico and then over to Odessa,” he recalled. “There’s not a lot of scenery, whether it’s daytime or nighttime, in some of those spots – much like going across the Prairies.

“You get a little flashback from time to time, thinking, ‘Pretty flat, pretty brown, pretty dry,’ whereas I used to see cactus and armadillos dead on the side of the road and things like that.

“I always try and impart a little bit of wisdom. I know two years ago, when we had guys like (former Pats defencemen) Brandon Davidson and Art Bidlevskii, who were going to turn pro the following year, they’d always want to hear stories when they were riding the bike.” Some of those stories pertained to the time Cameron spent in Johnstown, Pa., where Slap Shot was filmed.

“It’s not quite as glamorous or exciting as what you see in the movie,” said Cameron, whose team returns to action Friday, 7 p.m., against the visiting Prince Albert Raiders. “It’s kind of a tougher place to live and play, but I have that experience as well.

“Geroy Simon from the Roughriders is from Johnstown and, on Sunday, I had a chance to talk to him about Johnstown and the fact that I played there and some of my hangouts when I played there. It was pretty neat to be able to share that experience with somebody here in Regina who has actually been to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, so it has been a real wild experience.” The wildest moments in Slap Shot were created by the fictitious, fractious Hanson Brothers. Cameron did not emulate that type of player.

“I wasn’t tough enough to put on the foil,” Cameron said. “I wasn’t that kind of player.” Cameron wrapped up his playing career at 28, the rigours of the game having exacted a toll. He quickly moved to coaching, spending two years as an assistant to Kevin Dickie at Acadia University before joining the Western Professional Hockey League’s Lubbock Cotton Kings.

After one season in Lubbock, he accepted another assistant-coaching post with the ECHL’s Columbia Inferno. Then it was off to the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones, with whom he debuted as a head coach during the 2002-03 season.

Cameron spent the following season with two teams – the United Hockey League’s Columbus Stars and the Central Hockey League’s Corpus Christi Rayz – before returning to the ECHL. He coached the Long Beach Ice Dogs for two seasons before a four-year stint with the Texas Wildcatters. He subsequently spent two seasons with the Florida Everblades and part of the 2010-11 campaign with the Elmira Jackals.

The stories he can tell … “There’s ones you can publish and ones you can’t, for sure,” Cameron said. “There were so many neat experiences.

“When I was in Long Beach, California, coaching with the Montreal Canadiens’ affiliate, our owner was a gentleman by the name of Barry Kemp, who’s a Hollywood movie and TV producer. He’s had pretty successful runs with Taxi and Newhart and Coach, and Catch Me If You Can and Patch Adams as well.

“As a team-builder, I wanted to do something different, and he arranged for tickets for us to go to The Price Is Right for two straight years. We got a chance to go in the old studio with Bob Barker and we actually had a couple of players called up on stage – one each year.

“My second year, Christian Larrivee won $23,000 on Plinko. We thought he was going to get to the Showcase Showdown. He spun 90 cents but the lady behind him got a dollar, so he didn’t get a chance.” When Cameron first got a chance to be a head coach, in Cincinnati, the Cyclones were owned by Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, onetime Tampa Bay Lightning governor David LeFevre, actor Cuba Gooding Jr., former New York Rangers GM Neil Smith and ESPN’s John Saunders.

“We had a real neat ownership group and they took us to Austria, Germany and Italy for two weeks for training camp,” Cameron said. “That was just such a great experience.

“I had never been to Europe before and I haven’t been back since, but I got a chance with my wife and year-and-a-half-old son to go on a barnstorming tour of Europe and see the culture and experience some of the cities that I may never, ever get a chance to go back to.

“There are things like going out on deep-sea fishing tours with your players and catching sharks and stingrays in Florida and Texas. It has been a pretty neat experience coaching in the minors, for sure.” Cameron last coached in the ECHL in February of 2011, when he was fired in Elmira. The Pats came calling a few months later and, there he was, on the road again.

rvanstone@leaderpost.com