Incoming Seattle Thunderbirds GM Bil La Forge won't have his team brawling its way through the WHL like his late father's junior hockey squads used to. But La Forge says he's proud of his dad's accomplishments and the workmanlike qualities he instilled in him.
Growing up the son one of the toughest, most-feared coaches in junior hockey history rubbed off on new Seattle Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge in some key ways.
La Forge won’t fight with opposing coaches, encourage bench-clearing brawls, run his players through punishing “gauntlet drills” or have them jog the final few miles to their hotel after road losses the way his late father, Bill, once did. But like his dad, who coached several brawling teams in the Western Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League in the 1980s and 1990s and the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks briefly in 1984-85, the younger La Forge believes toughness and work ethic gets you places.
“I was sitting around general managers’ meetings since I was 10 years old and so I saw how hard he worked and how much he respected the people around him,’’ said La Forge, 44, named the T-Birds GM on Wednesday after four seasons as director of player personnel for the rival Everett Silvertips. “That’s something that I think is one of my strengths…you communicate very well and you make sure that you are passionate and will never be outworked.’’
La Forge takes over a Thunderbirds team he already knows rather well and that’s coming off a transitional fifth-place season that followed consecutive WHL finals appearances and the departures of NHL draft picks Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Ethan Bear and Keegan Kolesar. La Forge’s Silvertips eliminated the T-Birds in the first round of the playoffs, but he feels the squad’s emerging crop of players is poised for a deeper run.
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La Forge replaces longtime Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell, who moves upstairs to a vice-president’s position for at least the coming season to help La Forge transition into the GM role. Farwell was managing partner of the ownership group that sold the T-Birds last year after winning the WHL championship and has been planning to step back from the game for some time after 23 seasons with the club.
The team’s new Canadian owners, brothers Dan and Lindsey Leckelt, played hockey with La Forge in Alberta and had long viewed him as Farwell’s future successor.
“We talked about other people for a little while but he was the one they were the most comfortable with,’’ Farwell said. “He’s been preparing for a long time and he’s a hardworking guy. There’s no reason he won’t do well with it.’’
Farwell, who also served as GM of the Philadelphia Flyers from 1990-94, got to know La Forge’s father “quite well” starting with the latter’s early 1980s years coaching WHL franchises in Regina and Kamloops.
The elder La Forge, who once got a pro football tryout with the Calgary Stampeders, used to have his players skate at tackling dummies to teach them how to hit. He’d jumped to the WHL partly to avoid a 50-game suspension slapped on him by the OHL the prior year for fighting rival coach Dave Dryden – older brother of NHL Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden – during a pregame playoff round brawl.
His Regina team amassed a league-leading 3,412 penalty minutes his first and only season there. But as tough as he was behind the bench, he was known as good-hearted away from the rink.
“Hockey was different then,’’ Farwell said with a chuckle, adding that the younger La Forge “is very passionate and he probably got some of that from his dad, but the game has changed a lot.’’
La Forge, who dropped the second “l” from his first name as a child because he “thought it was kind of cool,” played for his dad in the OHL and hasn’t forgotten his mantra about players needing a hockey PHD – pride, hustle and desire. It’s something he carried over to his life as a scout, telling himself the next great player could be the one he discovered at some remote rink in the dead of winter.
Running the Silvertips’ scouting department, he was credited with several Bantam draft picks that helped shape the team into the WHL finalists they became this past season.
“You make sure that you are passionate and will never be outworked,’’ La Forge said. “That was kind of how he saw the game and that’s the same way I see it. I love this game. I’m passionate about the Memorial Cup and the CHL. And I will never be outworked. That’s the same way he was.’’