Wednesday, January 25th was a classic example of a Gord Thibodeau win for the Whitecourt Wolverines.
Fighting to regain their position at the top of the Viterra AJHL North Division, the Wolverines pelted the Lloydminster Bobcats with 46 shots in a 3-1 win. Requiring a strong commitment to the defensive side of the game as part of the complete effort, goaltender Pierce Diamond made 20 saves on 21 shots for his 19th win of the season. The 32nd victory of his career, all have come under Thibodeau.
It was also win 32 on the season for the Wolverines, temporarily putting them at the top of a congested race in the division Thibodeau has spent his entire hockey career. With that win also came career win 830, placing him two wins behind legendary coach Don Phelps.
“I was aware before the season started,” Thibodeau said of his approach to the record. “In talking to the league, they had told me where Don was so I knew going into the season that is was possible, but it’s certainly not something you focus on.
“It really hasn’t become a focus until the last week or so.”
As much as he likes to shy away from placing the spotlight on himself, the Junior A hockey landscape in Alberta would be vastly different without the presence of Thibodeau and his contributions to the game. As a player, Thibodeau’s name graces the league’s record books after finishing with 22 goals and 96 points in 53 games in the 1983-84 campaign as a member of the Fort Saskatchewan Traders. Finishing fifth in league scoring, he helped deliver the Traders their second league championship in six seasons.
The Traders would be the team to get him into coaching, helping him earn his first of two Coach of the Year Awards, but his first full time gig wouldn’t come until the late 1990s with the Lloydminster Blazers. Stints with the Blazers and St. Albert Saints followed, bringing Thibodeau and those teams success, but his pursuit of winning an AJHL championship as a coach still remained out of his grasp.
That’s when the Fort McMurray Oil Barons came calling ahead of the 2003-04 season, asking him to take over the reins of their team. Three seasons into taking over the direction of the club, Thibodeau had his championship team, winning after two previous unsuccessful trips to the league final.
But even 20 years later, while the wins pile up, Thibodeau still does it for the players.
“Any coach will tell you, you need great players,” Thibodeau said. “I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve worked with some real good staff also. That definitely helps. I’ve been blessed to have the talent that I’ve had at various locations."
“That’s the biggest part of this. Players play the game; they’re the ones that win. Coaches are very overrated at times.”
It should be no surprise then that in 20 odd years around the league as a coach, Thibodeau has had the opportunity to mentor some of the AJHL’s top alumni who have since moved onto the National Hockey League.
Scott Hartnell was with him during his first year in Lloydminster. Thibodeau has fond memories of coaching the Comrie brothers, Mike and Paul. More recently, Thibodeau has drawn praise for seeing the potential in a young Colton Parayko, helping guide him through his junior career with the St. Albert native blossoming into one of the NHL’s top young defensive stars.
“With Gord, there’s no grey area,” said current MOB head coach Tom Keca, who served under Thibodeau as an assistant. “Every single player knew where he stood with Gord. Everybody understood the expectations that he had. "
“He had the unbelievable ability to hold guys accountable and yet every single player knew exactly how much Gord cared for them. I think that’s a trait all coaches should aspire to have.”
But just as the names Hartnell, Comrie and Parayko among others have created names for themselves, Thibodeau says he takes just as much pride in the players who were able to pursue hockey beyond their junior career and find fulfilment beyond the edges of a hockey rink.
“It’s great to see Parayko there, but it’s also great to see the Carson Coopers of the world, Justin Rose and those kids have success at the next level and have success in their lives,” Thibodeau continued. “The development thing is a big part of it also.”
Players like Brock Maschmeyer, Alex Cromwell and Tanner Jaillet, to name a few, occupy spots on NCAA rosters, but his reach also extends further than the hockey rink. Two of his former players with the MOB, Kevin Lacroix and Mike Marianchuk, answered the call of duty as firefighters when wildfires surged around Fort McMurray in May 2016.
With the countless players, staff and games he’s be involved with, Thibodeau doesn’t feel it’s fair to pick a single point as the most memorable.
“I remember the players, I remember the staff,” he continued. “You remember the good things that that team did.”
“When we were able to work together, I was able to see first hand how hard he works at his craft,” noted Fran Gow, the AJHL’s vice president of hockey operations. “Some of my fondest memories of coaching come from working with Gord."
“I learned from him while going against him as competitors and even more once I had the opportunity to work alongside him.”
After departing from the MOB, Thibodeau didn’t stay on the free agent market for long, joining the Lloydminster Bobcats and guiding the team to within a win of the Royal Bank Cup title on home ice last May.
This past offseason, Thibodeau made another change, joining the Wolverines. In typical Thibodeau fashion, there was no year of transition for the team required. The Wolverines are challenging for the top spot in the North Division and trying to fend off his friend and former coaching partner in Keca, whose Barons are chomping at his heels.
If Thibodeau wins both his games against the Bonnyville Pontiacs to tie the record this weekend, he’ll come to Fort McMurray in the first weekend in February with two opportunities to pass Phelps officially. There will also be the matter of the Wolverines trying to cool off the MOB in the standings. Keca wants the four points no doubt, but there will be no denying Thibodeau his record sooner or later.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Keca said. “I’m just thrilled for him. Guys aspire to coach 800 games, let alone win [800 games]. When you really put that in perspective, that’s quite remarkable.”
The location for the potential record-breaking night couldn’t be more perfect either.
“If it couldn’t be done at home, I was definitely hoping it was going to be Fort McMurray or Lloydminster,” added Thibodeau.
As much success and movement as he’s had in the AJHL, there’s one team he’s remained with through thick and thin. Thibodeau credits his family for allowing him to be on the road as much as he has over the past two decades. It’s no easy life, but thankfully his family handles it with the same humour Thibodeau has been known for himself.
“You’re at 830 wins dad,” Thibodeau said his daughter casually mentioned to him this week. “That’s 830 nights you were away from home.”
Home for Thibodeau has been more than a foundation and a roof of his head though. For his life, that definition of home has grown to include locker rooms and rinks throughout Alberta, Western Canada and the world.
It’s of no surprise then that his next home will be in the AJHL history books.