VANCOUVER â€” With the logo of the team that fired him just 72 hours earlier covered by a black curtain on the wall to his right, Willie Desjardins started to go through a list of people he wanted to thank.
The former head coach of the Vancouver Canucks began Thursday’s press conference with glowing words about his family, the club and its fans. Desjardins even gave kudos to the media, but his voice started to crack when he returned to a conversation he had with Alexandre Burrows after the veteran forward was traded at the end of February.
“When he was going to leave, he goes: ‘I was just really disappointed that I couldn’t win a Cup in this market. I felt I let the market down,'” said Desjardins, his eyes starting to water. “And that’s what I think. It’s the same thing.
“(Burrows) gave everything he had … I did the same.”
Desjardins was fired by the Canucks on Monday at the conclusion of a miserable season, one that saw Vancouver lose its final eight games in regulation to finish 29th in the NHL’s overall standings with a 30-43-9 record.
The 60-year-old made the playoffs with a 101-point campaign in 2014-15 as a rookie NHL head coach. But as the Canucks attempted to transition from an aging core to younger players while at the same time trying to stay competitive, they dropped to 75 points and a 28th-place finish in 2015-16 before the just-completed 69-point effort.
Desjardins â€” 109-110-27 during his three seasons in charge â€” was more candid with reporters in his final weeks, confirming Thursday he knew two months ago he was likely going to be shown the door.
“You just get a sense sometimes,” said Desjardins, speaking in the same room at Rogers Arena where he was introduced in June 2014. “When you’ve been around the game a little bit you get a feeling when things are coming to an end.”
Named the 18th head coach in franchise history after John Tortorella was fired, Desjardins came in as a man preaching speed and a balanced four-line attack.
He kept to that road map his first season, but said he was forced to adopt a more passive, defensive approach based on available personnel.
“I definitely coached different than I did my first year or I have coached in other places,” said Desjardins, whose wife watched the press conference from the back of the room. “As a coach, you have to adjust to the players you have. You can’t just say: ‘We’re going to play this way regardless of who we’ve got.'”
Despite mounting injuries this season, the Canucks were 23-20-6 at the end of January and occupied the Western Conference’s second wild-card spot before the bottom fell out.
More players went down before a case of the mumps tore through the locker-room, further hampering Desjardins’ attempt to salvage the campaign.
The playoffs no longer within reach, Burrows and Jannik Hansen were dealt as management finally gave the signal a full rebuild was needed for a club that stumbled to a 7-23-3 mark over its final 33 games.
Special teams were a disaster for Vancouver, which managed just 178 goals to set a new franchise low on the heels of the 186 registered in 2015-16.
“It’s a tough situation when you get to this point,” said Desjardins, 2-13-2 over his final 17 games. “There’s casualties sometimes.”
While often criticized for his deployment of both veterans and youngsters, Desjardins had an undeniable impact in the growth of Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund, among others.
“Those guys may leave me, but I’ll never leave some of those guys,” said Desjardins. “Some of the guys on this team, I’ll always follow and they’ll always be special.”
Asked why bother holding a press conference at all following his dismissal â€” there’s no expectation for a fired coach to speak with the media about his own demise â€” Desjardins said he wanted to leave on good terms.
“I’m not bitter about it. I am disappointed,” he said. “It’s such a great game. There’s just lots of people I owe thanks to.”
The native of Climax, Sask., was in discussions with the Pittsburgh Penguins before accepting the job in Vancouver some 34 months ago, and admitted Thursday that decision has recently crossed his mind.
“That’s not wrong,” said Desjardins, who wants to continue coaching. “I picked here for a reason. It wasn’t that I didn’t think about it, it’s not that I didn’t go through all the options.
“Knowing what I knew I’d always make the same call.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press