It says a lot about the character of Steve Arsenault that when he was
offered a position as an assistant coach with Canada’s National Para Hockey
Team, his first thought wasn’t how the opportunity would affect him, but
how it would affect the team.
Just two years removed from the end of his Team Canada playing career,
Arsenault wanted to ensure the new position wouldn’t cause any
uncomfortable moments in the dressing room.
“When I first found out that I might have this opportunity ahead of me, I
called [long-time national team member] Greg [Westlake] to make sure he was
okay with it, just because I do not want to put myself in a position that
could a distraction in any way for the guys,” he says. “That was the first
thing I needed to address.
“I think actually it's going to be more beneficial because they know me,
they know how I operate, they know what I'm thinking. Most of them hope
they get a similar opportunity when they decide to retire.”
The Spruce Grove, Alta., native skated away from the game following
Canada’s 2-1 overtime loss to the United States in the gold medal game at
the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, the last of his 128 games
wearing the Maple Leaf.
As one of the backbones of the Canadian blueline, Arsenault posted 21
points with Team Canada, won a pair of IPC World Para Hockey Championship
gold medals (2013, 2015) and earned Paralympic bronze in 2014 to go along
with his 2018 silver.
“I'd describe Stevie as a warrior-type player,” says Ken Babey, head coach
of Canada’s National Para Hockey Team. “He was a tough hombre on the ice,
worked hard, always backed his teammates. He's a guy that, since he's left
the program, we really miss in the line-up, because he just gave you that
two-way play and was such a good team player.”
It was Babey who brought Arsenault back into the fold, first as a guest
coach at a camp last winter, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down
the hockey season.
The bench boss loves the passion and insight Arsenault brings to the
position, and his unique ability to connect with players in a way the rest
of the staff just isn’t able to replicate.
“As coaches, we're talking to the athletes from a coach/athlete
relationship, but he's kind of in between that,” Babey says. “He's a guy
who played at a high level, played a number of years, was very successful.
When he's talking to the guys individually or collectively, I think their
radar may pick up a bit, because it's still like talking to a player. So,
they have that relationship. They have the common ground, so to speak, in
relation that they're in the sled playing the game.
It’s a coaching style Arsenault was honing even as he continued to
represent his country as a player.
In 2014, Wheelchair Sports Alberta made the decision to create a provincial
para hockey program to help bridge the gap between the club level and the
national team. Alberta Sledge (para hockey was known as sledge hockey until
2016) was the result of that decision and Arsenault – as the lone Albertan
on the Team Canada roster – was quick to jump on board as an advisor.
He took over as head coach of the provincial team the following year, and
all he has done since then is lead Alberta to four consecutive national
para hockey championships (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019).
But it’s not the championships he is most proud of. The Alberta program has
become one of the major pipelines to Team Canada; during the 2019-20
season, five of Arsenault’s players earned invites to the national
selection camp and four – Cody Dolan, Micah Kovacevich, Zach Lavin and
Branden Sison – were on the roster for the biggest event of the shortened
season, the 2019 Canadian Tire Para Hockey Cup.
“He really accelerated my hockey career at that provincial level and
provided me with the insight as a player,” says Dolan, who was part of
three national titles with Team Alberta. “In terms of the mentality, the
work ethic, even some of the Hockey Canada systems that he was able to
bring to our provincial level and emphasize in our own skill set … I really
owe a lot to Steve.
“He's like a coach/father, in some sense, making you work hard and teaching
you some of the ethics and the morality of the game and really pushing you
to be at your best.”
The key to success for Arsenault doesn’t lie in the wins and losses (not
that there have been many of those). The basis of the provincial program
has always been about producing great players and great people that can
succeed at the next level.
“You get to watch them grow,” he says. “Some of these guys on the national
team now started [in the provincial program] when they were teenagers, and
now I see them as young adults in the national program, on their way to
having long careers. Seeing that progress, I find that exciting and very
rewarding, even more so than winning championships.”
The opportunity exists now for Arsenault to take his coaching philosophies
one step further, to influence not only the next generation of para hockey
players from Alberta, but from across the country.
After two years away, he is excited to be back around the national team, to
be a part of what Hockey Canada has been building, to learn from Babey and
his staff and to chase the one piece of hardware that eluded him as a
“A lot of the guys I kind of disconnected from when I retired,” Arsenault
says. “It’s great to catch back up with them and see how much they've
progressed both in maturity and skill level, especially the younger guys.
The culture they've created even from when I retired has improved so much.
It kind of makes me wish I was still playing, because that culture is the
kind of culture I would want to be part of. It's fun.
“I want to help the guys find success, and I want them to win a
[Paralympic] gold medal, because that's something that I was never able to
do as a player. That's my first and foremost goal. I bled for that team for
a very long time, so it's exciting to be back with them. I look forward to
the road ahead.”