Few coaches in the ranks of junior hockey are better known, or more respected, than Dwight McMillan.
It is a reputation well-earned from years behind the bench of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Weyburn Red Wings.
McMillan began his coaching career in 1966 with the Junior B team in Weyburn, and also spent four seasons with the city's Midget program, which included an opportunity to coach a young Dave 'Tiger' Williams. In the fall of 1972, McMillan stepped behind the Red Wings’ bench and, with the exception of a couple of seasons away from the team, has remained there since.
What has kept him on the bench more than a quarter of a century is something of a mystery, even to the man himself. "I've never really sat down and thought about what it is that keeps me coaching," he said when asked, suddenly came to reasons. "I guess it's the challenge of winning, and of developing young men."
McMillan likened coaching to "going to war" where at the end of each on-ice battle must come a time of reflection. "When you win one you sit down and figure out how to win the next one. If you lose, you look at what you did wrong so you can fix it to win the next one."
In February 2004, McMillan entered the realm of coaching immortality. A Feb. 15 home-ice win over the Melville Millionaires was McMillan's 900th of his career. That put him third on the all-time list of junior coaching wins behind Bert Templeton who ended his career with 907 wins and Brian Kilrea of the Ottawa 67's (McMillan has since passed Templeton, and now sits alone in second place).
Kilrea won his 1,000th game in March 2003.
McMillan was in his 25th full season with the Wings when he reached the milestone. He has won 40 or more games in a season on nine occasions, and the Wings with McMillan behind the bench have captured six SJHL championships.
McMillan took the milestone win with his characteristic humble attitude. He likened it to simply going to work for 900 days, suggesting longevity alone will earn one such achievements. "It's something I never thought about," he said, adding the win could have come and gone without his notice, if not for the media and others. "The 900 wins don't help me win the next game."
Among the hundreds of wins, one probably stands at the forefront: the Wings’ 1984 victory over the Orillia Travelways in the Centennial Cup final, symbolic of Canadian Junior A supremacy.
"You don't win a national championship everyday," said McMillan.
McMillan said timing has a lot to do with winning. "The year before I thought we actually had a better club," he said, noting injuries as the regular season ended and the playoffs began hampered the Wings' chances.
In 2005, the RBC Royal Bank Cup was played in Weyburn, meaning the Wings received an automatic spot in the tournament.
The hosts would win the championship in dramatic fashion, putting yet another feather in McMillan's cap.
Admittedly, McMillan said winning the title is hard coming from the SJHL, the junior league he believes is the best in the country, even if it is a biased point of view.
"It's tough coming out of this league. You have very difficult playoff games here. You can be pretty banged up by the time you get there (the national tournament)," he said.
McMillan, who has only missed the playoffs two or three times as coach, said his experience can at times play a role, but it really has to come from the players by playoff time.
"At times it (experience) can be important, but it really has to come from within," he said in 2003. "You try to draw on your experience and try things. It doesn't always work, but you hope that you punch the right buttons."
Coaching isn't easy, said McMillan, but it has become a passion.
"You're going to win some, and you're lose some. I tell young guys starting in as coaches there will be lots of lows, as well as highs. If you're not prepared to handle that, you shouldn't be in the business."
-- Excerpt (plus additions) from Guts and Go: Great Saskatchewan Hockey Stories by Calvin Daniels, from Heritage House Publishing
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