Written by Erik Thompson

It’s character that wins championships, says NSDs director of hockey.

photos: Erik Thompson

Sitting in his office at National Sports Development in Calgary, Rick Alexander has adapted to his latest role in hockey, coaching kids instead of the professionals he has coached for 25 years. For most of his career he found a way to coach professionally outside the NHL; he spent nearly three decades in Europe before returning to Canada a few years ago.

Over those years Alexander, now 57, has seen everything the game of hockey has to offer. Team championships, losing streaks, winning streaks, teams going bankrupt, fans threatening to beat him up, coaching two teams at once, up to the satisfaction of seeing players he coached drafted to the NHL.

His story begins in Calgary. Growing up Alexander played his minor hockey in the Calgary Buffaloes Association. From there he ended up in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, playing for the Calgary Cowboys Junior A team. Then, a stop at the University of Calgary Dinos on a scholarship was the last time Alexander stepped on the ice as a player in North America.

With the 1976 season approaching Europe was calling for Alexander to come play. That August Alexander was on a plane for Essen, Germany and the German elite league.
“I planned to go for one year,” he said. “I ended up staying for 25.”

His high school sweetheart and soon-to-be wife, Patti would join him that December. The two would be married in the 1977 off season.

“We were supposed to get married over there, but because of all the paperwork that had to be translated back and forth we got married when we got home,” Patti said.

Despite a promising 68 points in 38 games with Essen, Alexander’s playing career in Europe was over by the end of the 1978 season. Multiple knee injuries forced him to trade in his skates for a clipboard. At the end of the 1977-1978 season he was facing surgery on both knees to repair medial collateral ligament damage.  It would be the second surgery on the left knee.

“When the doctor finally looked at me at the end of that season he said the left knee definitely has to be operated on again and the right knee probably, if you want to play anymore. At age 26, I just said no.”

It would be devastating to many promising athletes to have a career cut so short but not for Alexander.

“I know a lot of players that I have coached that love the game of hockey and they miss it every second they are not on the ice. I was never like that,” he said. “Secondly, I was coaching so I was never away from the game.”

After rehabilitation in Calgary, Alexander returned to Europe before the 1979 season to pick up his belongs. The Essen team owner met with Alexander and confided in him that the team had gone into bankruptcy and he would be leaving the team.

“They had no board of directors, no owner, no general manager, no coach, no anything. I had been voted one of the athletes of the year in Essen and was very well know. Some guys talked me into taking over the team and becoming general manager, president and coach.”

Patti was on board, too.

“I was excited for him,” she said. “I thought he would do a great job at it. He was just a natural at coaching.”

With two weeks until the season, Essen had no players, no assistant coaches, and no money. But Alexander managed to advertise in the newspapers and scrape together a pro team in the second German division.

“We were terrible for the first half of the year. I got the last cuts from everybody else. I got the 20-year-old kid that was told ‘geesh fourth line sorry goodbye’. They were all hungry, they all wanted to work hard, and we did. We practiced twice a day everyday.”

Alexander credits the comradeship of his players for the success they achieved that first year winning the German tier II league championship.

“When the doctor finally looked at me at the end of that season he said the left knee definitely has to be operated on again and the right knee probably, if you want to play anymore. At age 26, I just said no.”

“We had no money, we had nothing,” he said. “We drew lots and the wives of the players would take turns cooking for the entire team, which really starts to build a family.”

“The big joke was ‘who cooked tonight?’” Patti said. “You knew for sure the German girls would cook really good but the Canadian girls, well that was iffy.”

But the second season behind the bench wasn’t nearly as successful as the first.

“I made a mistake. I got rid of some of my young players and went with people of talent,” Alexander said. “I found out character wins you championships.”

The next season Alexander came back with young guys and won a second championship in three years. But that would be his last year with Essen. With offers from other teams Alexander left Essen and the team folded from bankruptcy.

In the 1980s, the Swiss elite league was the second highest paying league in the world. Legendary coach Herb Brooks, who coached the 1980 Miracle team at the Lake Placid Olympics, and Andy Murray, who is the head coach of the St. Louis Blues, were coaching there. Soon Alexander would be included in that group.

Alexander recalled Brooks’ take on the Swiss elite league, “Herb said the NHL has a lot of pressure on coaches but the Swiss elite league has even more.”

Brooks would be fired before the end of the year.
Fans in Switzerland live and breathe their team. It is an important part of the culture so there is tremendous pressure to win, according to Alexander.

“The Swiss have a great deal of talent as hockey players,” he said, “but lack a lot of the drive to go further. You almost have to be a psychiatrist to coach over there.”

Psychiatrist or not Alexander thrived in Switzerland leading teams to the playoffs year after year. Another short stint in Germany and a second stay in Switzerland would lead Alexander to retirement from coaching after the 1995-1996 season.

But retirement didn’t last long.

“You sit out for three or four months and then a team calls,” he said. “They’ve got a really good team. The next thing you know it’s not working out. They’ve got to fire the coach, they’ve got to hire a new coach but all the good coaches have jobs.”

Except for Alexander.

“Rick went back a few times by himself,” Patti said. “He would say ‘I am retiring’ and I would get things organized here in Calgary, then he would come home and say ‘now were going back’.”

However by this time the Alexanders had two children. Nicole, born in 1982, and Kai, born in 1987, both in Europe. Patti had one rule; that they come home to Calgary every off season. So the kids ended up going to school from September to December in Europe and January to June in Calgary.

After 20 years in Europe, Patti wanted one thing. “I just wanted my own stuff,” she said. “Not stuff from the hockey team, not stuff that we would buy and have to leave there. I just wanted my own stuff.”

Having her own stuff gave Patti a stability in which she hadn’t known for so long.

Before the end of the 1998 season Alexander had offers to go back and coach teams for three months, to try to get them into the playoffs. With Patti and the kids in Calgary, that year Alexander led two teams into the playoffs.

Even though Alexander already committed to coach in Zurich in the tier I German League for the rest of the 1998 season, the Frankfurt team was in trouble and needed a proven coach badly.

“They lost 12 games in a row, 12 frigging games in a row,” he said.

Alexander took on the challenge.

“I was living in Zurich so in the morning I would get up, drive my car to the airport, hop on a plane to fly to Frankfurt, run the practice there, have lunch there, hop on a plane, fly back to Zurich and run my practice in the evening.”

Zurich already secured a playoff spot but Frankfurt needed to win their last three games to have a chance. Most teams had one game left and some had none. Because the games were three point games there was an outside chance of Frankfurt moving from ninth up to fourth and getting home ice advantage for the playoffs.

“We ended up winning those last three games,” Alexander said. “No one figured on us winning all three games, especially because two of them were on the road.”

The three wins moved Frankfurt into a tie with Andy Murray’s team in Clone for fourth spot. Goal differential gave the tie breaker to Frankfurt. The president of the Clone team was also the president of the league at the time.

“He has already booked his arena for the circus because the fifth place team couldn’t catch him and he never thought the ninth place team would,” Alexander said. “He’s got no rink to play his games.”

After a Frankfurt win in game one Alexander was having a beer with Murray. The Clone president came to join them. Murray handed him a beer and introduced him to Alexander.
SMASH, the beer hit the floor.

“I guess he doesn’t want to talk to you Rick,” Murray said.
Another year Alexander arrived to coach a team in Oxfurt, Germany that had lost seven games in a row. He arrived on a Saturday to coach that night’s game.

“We went out and lost that game,” he said. “After the game the fans came down and tried to beat me up. The police had me surrounded yelling ‘no, he is the new coach’.”

Oxfurt squeaked into the playoffs in eighth spot.

Finally, Alexander called it quits, or so he thought. Patti had told him that the family really missed him at Christmas and that she didn’t want him going back.

However, after months back in Calgary Alexander’s name started to surface around the German league.

“One morning the phone rings. I pick it up and start talking German. My wife is sitting there going ‘NO, NO’. She hears me mention Frankfurt, who is a wealthy team. Now I look over at my wife and she is saying ‘How much? How much?’.”
He hung up the phone and told her how much.

“She reaches across the table and takes both of my hands and I swear to God a tear rolled down her cheek and she said ‘I am really going to miss you this Christmas’.”

It would be Alexander’s last coaching job in Europe. It was a coaching career that had few blemishes. In fact, Alexander was never fired.

Canadian coach Dave King, who now coaches in Russia, once told him, “Rick, you are not a real coach until you’ve been fired.”

Rob Doyle was captain of the Frankfurt team that Alexander agreed to coach and become general manager the following season, his last year in Europe. He remembers meeting Alexander for the first time.

“My first impression was who is this guy with all this energy?” he said. “We were never sure if he even slept, he was always on the go.”

Doyle said that Alexander is the most knowledgeable coach he ever played for. He always made sure the team was prepared with as much information as possible on their opponents. But he also took an interest in his players.

“He took a lot of interest in the guy’s families, the guy’s lives away from hockey. He was genuinely interested in the guys on his team,” Doyle said.

After being back in Calgary for a year, in 2003 Alexander was approached with a business idea. Brian Strong, who won the Grey Cup in the Canadian Football League with Hamilton in 1986, had the plan from his master’s degree for an elite training program for young athletes called National Sport Development.

NSD, as it became known, focused on training young athletes to become elite athletes.

Alexander started in April 2003 with a group of 12 hockey players, ages 12 and 13. By the end of that summer over 600 kids were using NSD to train.

Initially Alexander and Strong planned on running NSD as a seasonal training facility from April to August.

“Because of the growth, I just felt that we had tapped into something special,” Strong said. “We put the money in and we built this thing.”

From there NSD continued to grow and expand to other sports including football, soccer and basketball.

Strong, who is now the executive director of NSD, said there was an adjustment period for Alexander going from coaching professionals to coaching kids as young as six. Alexander had helped with the Calgary hockey school and hockey schools in Zurich and Frankfurt as an instructor but this was his first full time shot with kids.

“I think the first year or two he had a tough time,” Strong said. “He doesn’t have a really big ego, but I know it was tough for him.”

Soon after opening at its current location on Flint Road, NSD which originally focused on grassroots athletics, opened to professionals.

“That gave Rick a bit of reprieve,” Strong said, “he got to coach some of the higher end guys too. But then as we have grown and grown, he is more out of the professional ranks.”
Alexander actually prefers coaching kids.

“I made a mistake. I got rid of some of my young players and went with people of talent,” Alexander said. “I found out character wins you championships.”

“Those kids that are 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, they will do anything for you. They all want to go somewhere in hockey. If you give them a drill no matter if it’s a good drill or a bad drill they will do it. If you get a pro player, you better know what you are doing. If you get a bunch of little kids and don’t know what you are doing they will be off in the corner horsing around.”

Strong believes Alexander has found new appreciation for coaching kids.

“He has really found his sweet spot and I think he has taken a lot of gratification out of the number of kids that he handles.”

Of the 12 original hockey players, three are playing NCAA hockey in the United States and the other nine are playing in the Western Hockey League, including Brandon Kozun of the Calgary Hitmen who is among the league leaders in scoring.

In the 2008 NHL entry draft two of the original 12 were drafted in the first round; Tyler Myers to Buffalo and Joe Colbourne to Boston.

On the ice Alexander has a tough love style of coaching.
“C’mon, c’mon, don’t slow down, it’s hard work for 30 seconds,” he preached during a skating drill at an NSD practice.

Kelly Pagenkoph has been bringing her 11-year-old son, Brandon from Chestermere to work with Alexander for more than three years. She says it has helped Brandon develop as a hockey player every year.

“Every year he goes up a level,” she said. “The kids want to learn. He is probably one of Brandon’s favourite coaches.”
Patti has seen this for years.

“He understands people very well,” she said. “Little kids too. He might bark at them in a tough way but he means it in the best way. It’s like the pied piper walking around the rink, ‘coach Rick, coach Rick.’ It’s been like that forever.”

But off the ice there is a 180 degree difference. His passion for not only hockey but for life in general is infectious.

“He is of the highest moral, ethical fiber that you can find,” Strong said. “He is very approachable, very passionate, and very genuine.”

Patti said it was like have three kids.

“As a dad he was a great dad,” she said. “He was the one building the tents in the living room with the chesterfield cushions and phoning up other kids to come out and play or he would take 10 kids on an adventure of some kind.”

Doyle had the same sentiments about his former coach.

“If you leave a conversation with Rick and you aren’t upbeat about it then you better re-evaluate your life,” he said.

Admittedly coaching wasn’t Alexander’s first choice for a profession but it ended up being a very successful choice.

“I never thought of myself as a coach,” he said. “I never wanted to be a coach. I took the job on as a challenge, just to see if I could do it. I found it very fulfilling. I found it a great deal of hard work. At times it was very enjoyable and at times very frustrating.”

Strong has seen Alexander’s reputation continue to grow through NSD.

“He has just built up a reputation with younger kids. Even though the tactics of the game changes, the base skill levels that you are going to implement and teach a young hockey player doesn’t change. That’s where he really started to take off and become widely respected.”

Alexander has found motivation to put on the skates day in and day out for over 30 years in the philosophy that he calls the pursuit of excellence.

“I do not like the pursuit of success. I do not like the pursuit of winning. I try to make what I do perfect. That means if I am doing a play and come down the wing and take a shot, I try and to do it to perfection or as close as I possibly can. I don’t ever become satisfied, only a fool is ever satisfied. You have got to continue to perfect. And if you pursue that you can never fail because you can never achieve it. But at the same token you can always be successful at pursuing it, so you pursue it constantly; you pursue it all your life. You never catch it but you never fail because you are still in that pursuit of excellence.”