For Marc Habscheid, it was a season where everything seemed possible.
Long before he was the head coach of the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, Habscheid was a star centre for the Saskatoon Blades. While he would play 345 career regular-season games in the NHL, recording a total of 72 goals and 91 assists while playing for the Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota North Stars, Detroit Red Wings and Calgary Flames, Habscheid believes his most magical season as a player was his 1981-82 campaign with the Blades.
Going into that season, Habscheid had been selected in the sixth round and 113th overall in the NHL entry draft by the Oilers. He had a good training camp with the Oilers before rejoining the Blades for his 18-year-old season.
“I came back with lots of confidence,” said Habscheid. “When you have confidence, then you start to score and then it just happened.
“Then, you go to the world juniors. Looking back on my career, that was probably the best year of my career, because of the numbers I put up.”
Habscheid appeared in 56 regular-season games with the Blades, piling up an incredible 64 goals and 87 assists for 151 points to finish second in team scoring behind Bruce Eakin. In the process, Habscheid helped the Blades post a record of 44 wins, 26 losses and two ties.
Along with having an outstanding season with the Blades, Habscheid appeared in his first seven NHL regular-season games with the Oilers, collecting a goal and three assists.
Under the inaugural year of Hockey Canada’s program of excellence that saw the country’s world junior entry made up of stars from the major junior ranks, Habscheid helped Canada win its first gold medal at the tournament, piling up six goals and six assists in seven games.
He finished the campaign playing three playoff contests for the Wichita Wind, a now-defunct Central Hockey League farm club of the Oilers that was based in Wichita, Kansas.
For Habscheid, the 1981-82 campaign was a result of the work he put in during his two previous hockey seasons.
Growing up on a farm just south of Swift Current, Habscheid was playing in Swift Current’s minor hockey system when he was listed by the Blades. Back in those days, there was no WHL bantam draft.
Before the start of the 1979-80 season, Habscheid was brought in to try out for the Blades. If he didn’t make the Blades, the team’s management, guided by general manager Jackie McLeod, wanted the skilled centre to play for the Saskatoon J’s, the team’s junior A affiliate in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
“In those days, there was no recruiting,” said Habscheid. “You went into the dressing room, they gave you a jersey and a number and you were with 120 guys.
“I was just from Swift Current, but I didn’t know where I stacked up. All of a sudden, I come to camp and I am 16 or whatever and I am against 20-year-olds and 19-year-olds.
“That was a big step for me, so I really didn’t know what to expect. It was intimidating to say the least, because I used to listen to the radio and hear the Blades play the Pats or the Billings Bighorns.”
Habscheid didn’t make the Blades, and under the SJHL’s rules at the time, he had to establish residency in Saskatoon to play for the J’s, because the junior A Swift Current Broncos wouldn’t release him.
His family ended up renting a little house in Saskatoon, and Habscheid moved to the big city at age 16.
“Every step is a big thing to learn,” said Habscheid, who stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 180 pounds in his playing days. “I was in a big city. I had never ever lived in a city before. I was a farm kid.
“I didn’t have my driver’s licence. When I was with the J’s, you would always take the bus down to practice or the bus down to the games, because that was how we got around.”
He appeared in 59 regular-season games with the J’s, collecting 32 goals and 53 assists for 85 points.
Due to playing in Saskatoon, Habscheid was called up to play 15 regular-season games with the Blades, collecting two goals and three assists.
Habscheid remembers joining the Blades for a game where they took on Moscow Spartak, whithAlexander Yakushev on the roster, in an exhibition tilt. Yakushev played for the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series and was nearing the end of his career.
Following that campaign, Habscheid spent the 1980-81 season with the Blades, topping the team in scoring with 34 goals and 63 assists for 97 points, and appearing in all 72 regular-season games. That set the stage for allowing him to be drafted by the Oilers.
Habscheid said Lorne Frey, who was a Blades assistant coach in 1979-80 and started out as head coach in 1980-81, helped him transition to life in the city.
The Blades stumbled out of the gates in 1980-81, resulting in the team replacing Frey as head coach with Daryl Lubiniecki. Lubiniecki coached the Blades to the end of the 1983-84 season before focusing on what would be a long run as the team’s general manager.
From Lubiniecki, Habscheid learned how important it is to fit everyone into roles they were meant for on a team.
“He (Lubiniecki) wasn’t big into Xs and Os,” said Habscheid. “He was more into the team and everyone having different roles on the team and playing to their roles.
“He really let the guys play to their strengths. For me, he let me play. He didn’t want me blocking shots.
“That was a big thing. It is important for the coach to identify what they are good at and let them play to that.”
In 1981-82, Habscheid was part of a forward group that included four other players who recorded 90 or more points: Eakin, Todd Strueby, Lane Lambert and Perry Ganchar.
That group was able to score thanks to the presence of tough characters like Daryl Stanley, Dave Brown, Leroy Gorski, Donn Clark and Bruce Gordon. That group of five players combined for 1,479 penalty minutes in 1981-82.
To put that figure in perspective, no team in the current WHL regular season has recorded 1,000 minutes in penalties as of March 4.
“Everyone had a role and everyone had a job to do on the team. There was no better saying like singers sing and dancers dance, but he also wanted a tough team.
“My teammates looked out for me and took care of me and enabled me to play. I think that is a big thing too, was you need support from everybody. Luby let me play my style, and my teammates let me play.”
When Habscheid joined Canada’s team for world juniors, he met another coach who would have a big impact on his hockey career. While he played with the Blades, Habscheid would often see Dave King, who was the head coach of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team, in the crowd.
He never met King until joining Canada’s world junior team. Habscheid later played for King during a number of stints on Canada’s senior national team, including the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
“We’re still close,” said Habscheid. “The style that I played for the Blades,
I couldn’t do that in the NHL.
“I needed to be a more two-way player. He taught me a lot about defence, and he gave me the opportunity to play with the national team. With coaching, you learned a lot from him playing for him as a coach and as a player.
“I still learn from him. He is still somebody that I can phone at any time.”
Following the 1981-82 season, Habscheid was moved totally into the Oilers system. The Oilers owned the Junior Oilers in Kamloops at the time, and Habscheid played six regular-season games in Kamloops before spending the bulk of the 1982-83 campaign with the NHL club in Edmonton in what was his 19-year-old season.
Habscheid often thinks of that, when he coaches in the current day.
“My 19-year-olds, that was me, and I was playing in the NHL at that time,” said Habscheid. “Then it kind of sinks in as to how young I really was.
“You think you might be ready for the NHL. When you get a little older and wiser, you probably realize at that time you probably weren’t ready.”
Guiding the Raiders this season, Habscheid picked up his 500th career WHL head coaching victory. The Raiders lead the WHL standings with a 51-9-2-2 record and will have home ice for the playoffs.
Prince Albert is having its best campaign in over a couple of decades, and the current players hadn’t seen the team hit even 40 wins until this season.
“This is the first year that they’ve had this success,” said Habscheid. “To see them deal with it, the newness of it, the new experience of it has been lots of fun.
“You try to be a mentor and help them understand how to deal with it, because a lot of guys have never seen this before or been through this. It is new territory. You just try to help them as much as you can.”
As a coach, Habscheid tries to create moments where his players can enjoy their youth. Reflecting on his Saskatoon days, he remembers hanging out with Blades teammate Bill Langen and high school classmate Dan Senick, going to Gordie Howe Bowl for high school football games and just having a good time.
“These kids change and everything, but you have to understand they are still kids,” said Habscheid. “Sometimes you have to think about that.
“You realize that when I was 18 or 17 I was hopping into a VW Bug listening to The Cars on Bill Langen’s stereo and going to high school football games and thought we had the greatest thing in the world.
“We did. It was awesome. It was some of the greatest times in your life.”
(You can see more of Darren Steinke’s work in his online blog stankssermon.blogspot.ca.)