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Pearn takes hockey road from Stettler to the NHL

The 2009-10 National Hockey League season marks 100th year in the league for the Montreal Canadiens, and expectations going in were sky high, with many Montrealers expecting nothing less than a 25th Mug. (What else is new?)
From small-town Alberta to coaching in the National Hockey League – Perry Pearn leads a practice for the Montreal Canadiens

Lucas England

Independent contributor

The 2009-10 National Hockey League season marks 100th year in the league for the Montreal Canadiens, and expectations going in were sky high, with many Montrealers expecting nothing less than a 25th Mug. (What else is new?)

Throughout this season, the Canadiens have been up and down while having to deal with a rash of injuries and internal incidents which have presented a challenge to all involved in the organization. One man who is more than willing to meet those challenges head on is assistant coach and Stettler native Perry Pearn.

Born and raised in Stettler, Pearn got his start coaching at the local level when he started helping out with the peewee team as a Grade-11 student. During this time he was a very good midget hockey player and a Stettler Wildcat as well.

“I actually started out at quarterback for the Wildcats,” remembers Pearn. “But I ended up losing my job to a man named Gord Pickering, moving me to safety. It turned out to be a good thing, as we ended up being a very good football team.”

Pearn would first leave Stettler for higher learning at the University of Alberta where he went on to realize his goal of becoming a physical education teacher. Coaching though, was always in the back of his mind.

“Playing high school football and loving it, I thought that’s where I was going to end up, maybe also coaching girls’ basketball and volleyball. But I played hockey my entire life, a little bit at U of A and then with the Red Deer Rustlers where I won a Centennial Cup, so I guess hockey was always there.”

Pearn began teaching in St. Albert, Alberta. at the elementary level before moving to Paul Kane High School, where he coached track and girls’ basketball. That was until an old friend named Dale Henwood called and asked if Pearn would be interested in changing careers.

“Dale was a good friend of mine from my junior days and was coaching with NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) Ooks and asked me to be one of his assistants.”

Pearn agreed, made the move to Edmonton, and a couple of years later he moved into his first head coaching role when Henwood left the Ooks program in 1978. He would spend the next 15 years at NAIT and accumulate six CCHA (Canadian College Athletic Association) national championships.

During this time, Pearn would take every chance to learn his craft from one of his mentors, Clare Drake, who made his name with the U of A program and with the Edmonton Oilers.

“He’s one of the most successful coaches in Alberta history and set a standard with U of A hockey. With him being so close, I took every opportunity to watch him and get on the ice with him when ever I could. He really helped me and many other young coaches.”

It was at this same time when Pearn would first get involved with the Canadian national team, first with the under-18s, then with the Canadian junior team.

With the national junior team, Pearn would go on to win two golds as an assistant coach, before finally getting the nod to coach the team himself in 1993, winning a third gold in the process.

“I definitely used that experience to get my next job which was in Europe and it was a great time for me.”

The team Pearn coached was Ambri-Piotta in the Swiss Elite League, where he led them to a respectful 17-17-2 record during the 1993-94 season. From there, it was back to Alberta and a head coaching job with the Medicine Hat Tigers.

It was here, in the Western Hockey League where he would get his first NHL recognition.

“Wayne Simpson was the general manager with the Red Deer Rebels, who we seemed to play ten times that season, so I guess he saw me quite a bit and passed on some information to his brother Terry. Shortly after the season ended, I got a call from Terry who offered me a job with the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL.”

His first year with Winnipeg turned out to be his last as well, as it was the final season in Jets history.

“It was definitely a great experience for me but was pretty hard at the end of the season seeing how sad the city was going to be without their team. I really don’t think they realized it until that final game.”

“But we can be proud of the job we did. The team had not made the playoffs for three years before we got there and we made it one last time, losing to a good Detroit team in six games.”

It was during this season when Pearn would reconnect with one of his old national team friends, Jacques Martin, who was then coaching the Ottawa Senators. Martin was curious about Pearn’s availability at the end of the year, as the team was moving and new ownership was coming in.

“When Terry ended up not going to Phoenix, I didn’t go either, which turned out to be a great decision on my part, as my coaching career benefited greatly with my move to Ottawa.”

Before Pearn’s arrival in Ottawa, the Senators had not made the playoffs since they reentered the NHL in 1992. But things would soon change.

“On the last day of the season we ended up beating Buffalo 1-0 and got into the playoffs for the first time, which was very exciting.”

Over the next eight years Pearn would make his home in Ottawa and his team would make the playoffs every year. He would also have a front row seat to one of the greatest rivalries in the NHL during that time, “The Battle of Ontario”, one that Albertan Flames and Oilers fans can easily relate too.

The lock out of 2004-05 saw the Martin regime end in Ottawa, and with it Pearn’s tenure, too. This change would send Jacques to the Florida Panthers to be their new general manager.

This was also the time when Pearn believed he would get his first chance to be interviewed as a head coach in the NHL with the open Florida job, but unfortunately, the call from Jacques did not come.

“I was disappointed at first, but there’s no resentment at all. I believed I had earned the right to go through the interview process and it just didn’t turn out that way. But I’ve talked to Jacques about it, he acknowledged he should have called, he apologized and we moved on. I understand this business and things like that happen in the NHL. Trust me when I say it doesn’t even rank on our tough times list.”

After the lock out, it was off to the bright lights of New York City when Tom Renney and the Rangers came calling.

“Tom was a western guy who I’ve casually known since the eighties but had never coached with. He was familiar with my work and reputation, though, and I think I just fit into what they were looking for in New York.”

It was a couple of years in New York before Renney was eventually let go in February 2009, with Pearn joining him in the unemployment line. This jobless run would only last a couple of months, as Martin would soon arrive in Montreal and make one more call to Pearn, culminating with his new position in Montreal.

Throughout the season so far, Pearn has continued to build his reputation as one of the leagues foremost experts on the power play, taking a 13th placed Hab team last year and turning them into the leagues second best unit at 24.6 % after the Ovechkin led Washington Capitals.

“We’re in a real good situation here in Montreal, especially with Kirk Muller here, who handles most of the penalty killing duties. We talk to each other all the time and give our opinions to each other, which is great because it’s always good to get a player perspective on certain things, which is very important.”

Like all NHL teams, the Habs and Pearn will be on a two week break now with the Olympics in town. The Habs will be hoping they get some of their injured stars back sooner, rather than later to make Pearn’s job a little easier.

So there you have it, a local boy who is truly living the Canadian Dream. Hopefully those who try to use the location crutch as an excuse can realize it doesn’t matter where you’re from in this great country, if you work hard and pay your dues, anything is possible. Even a job in the NHL.