Don Nachbaur arrived in Calgary last Thursday for Canada’s National Para Hockey Team selection camp with an appetite to learn.
The 60-year-old – who is serving as a guest coach at camp – received his first lesson on what the para hockey experience is truly all about that very evening when he strapped into a sled and attempted to play the game.
Like most newcomers to the sport, the former NHL forward (he suited up for 223 games with the Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers during parts of eight seasons) found the sled challenging to tame.
“I have a whole new appreciation after being in a sled for a half an hour,” says the Kitimat, B.C., native. “I thought I was an excellent skater – I had a great stride – but those boards came up in a hurry, and my stopping and tight turns weren’t very good. And then you have to put striding and carrying the puck together – and that’s not an easy task.”
Nachbaur says the session was one of a couple of occasions where he would “feel like a 16-year-old rookie.” He anticipated he would feel that sensation again during his first practice with the likes of Billy Bridges, Greg Westlake and Dominic Larocque and that he would take advantage of the opportunity by closely observing “their edge control, how they think the game and how they pass the puck.”
A thirst for knowledge is nothing new to Nachbaur: his curiosity propelled him throughout his 15 years as a player and has continued to be a driving force in his 25 seasons as a coach.
“I tried to take pieces from every coach that I played for and put it in my memory bank,” says Nachbaur. “Not only the way the way they treated people, but also the drills they used and the styles of play they had.”
Nachbaur entered the coaching profession in 1994 with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League (WHL) after he wrapped up his playing career with EC Graz of the Austrian Hockey League. He was poised to achieve success; all the knowledge he had attained from mentors – including 2013 Order of Hockey in Canada honouree Dave King – refined his ability to build a team game that would complement the skill set of the players at his disposal.
Plaudits indeed came Nachbaur’s way during his debut season with the Thunderbirds. He was awarded the Dunc McCallum Memorial Trophy as WHL coach of the year for leading his team to a 42-28-2 record, and picked up the prize again with the Tri-City Americans in 2007-08, and with the Spokane Chiefs in 2010-11.
In addition to award recognition, Nachbaur’s strong track record of achievement in the Major Junior ranks netted him an assistant coaching job with the Philadelphia Phantoms (2000-02), a head coaching appointment with the Binghamton Senators (2009-10) and an assistant role with the Los Angeles Kings (2017-18).
He also became a strong contender for coaching opportunities with Hockey Canada. As an assistant coach, Nachbaur led Canada’s National Men’s Summer Under-18 Team to gold at the 1999 Four Nations Cup and 2011 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament, and he helped Canada’s National Junior Team to a series win in the 2012 Canada-Russia Challenge.
Prior to camp, Ken Babey, the head coach of Canada’s National Para Hockey Team, expressed his eagerness to work with the well-regarded Nachbaur.
“He is known as a great teacher of the game. The players are going to relish the ideas and ways of doing things that Don will bring to the table.”
In addition to some notions on systems play, Nachbaur says two pieces of wisdom that he always shares with players are the importance of “committing to be professional” and “doing everything fast on the ice.”
Perhaps he will inspire the players to be curious too.