When Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins submitted his lineup card before a Nov. 22 road game against the Binghamton Senators, he added a name in the space for scratched players: Luke Richardson.
Richardson, of course, is the rookie coach for Binghamton, Ottawa’s American Hockey League affiliate. Eakins’ move was both an inside joke and a welcome to the AHL gesture towards his good friend.
“I knew he would get a good chuckle out of it,” says Eakins. “Don’t get me wrong. There are teams that I detest and as much as it’s all business, there are nights where you might try to give the other coach a smile. Besides, I had to beat him to the punch, because he might have done the same thing to me.”
The relationship between the two dates all the way back to their days together as teenagers, defence partners with the Peterborough Petes during the 1986-87 season. Richardson spent countless hours and many nights with Eakins’ family, who lived in Peterborough. Eakins was in Richardson’s wedding party. When Richardson retired from the NHL in 2008 and began his coaching career as an assistant with the Ottawa Senators, he sought out Eakins advice.
And now that the two will face off as opposing head coaches in the AHL all-star game next Monday – they earned the honour because Toronto and Binghamton owned the top winning percentages in their respective conferences at the end of December – they’ve completed a hockey circle, of sorts.
“For me to go to the All-Star Game is a testament to my players, but all the coaches really do at the All-Star Game is open the doors and let them loose,” says Eakins, who played 120 NHL games during his 16-year professional career.
“Once I knew I was in, I was watching the standings closely every night, hoping that (Richardson) would get in. The fact is, I’m really looking forward to spending a couple of days with Luke, so we can catch up. That’s my biggest thing.”
The feeling is mutual. Richardson says Eakins was a fantastic role model when he first arrived in Peterborough in 1985 as a 16-year-old Ontario Hockey League rookie, unsure of himself.
“He was from Peterborough, a hometown guy and those were my first two years away from home,” Richardson says. “It was really comforting for me.”
During the 1986-87 season, Richardson and Eakins were a physically imposing OHL defence tandem. Richardson was 6-4 and 210 pounds and Eakins was 6-2 and 195 pounds. “We also played a similar style,” says Richardson.
While Richardson was drafted seventh overall in the 1987 draft and went on to play 1,417 NHL regular season games and Eakins played primarily in the minors – eventually dressing for 18 teams – they’ve maintained their friendship.
“We’ve stayed in close touch and we always talk during the year,” says Richardson. “It’s a small world and the hockey world is even tighter and smaller.”
Twenty six years later, Richardson and Eakins say the Peterborough teams of their era were loaded with dedicated, committed players, dozens of who have since gone on to have long careers in hockey beyond their playing days.
“We were a really close knit team,” says Eakins. “We had some great character teams. When you’re playing, maybe you’re not aware of it and don’t think about it as much, but looking back, we had a lot of guys who were so tough mentally.”
Eakins also laughs about that he and Richardson now head up the farm teams for the nasty Battle of Ontario rivals.
“I’m not sure Maple Leafs and Senators fans would be so happy that we’re such good friends,” he says.