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July 26, 2006

TORONTO (CP) -- After playing for 18 teams in his 16-year professional hockey career, former defenceman Dallas Eakins is looking forward to a lengthy stay as an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I've always had a passion for not just playing the game but for learning the game," Eakins, 39, replies when asked how he's been able to so quickly make the transition to coaching. "That part of it was imperative for me because I was slow and I had no skills as a player.

"I had to know the Xs and the Os of the game and the motivational part of the game in order to survive."

Having Roger Neilson as a mentor helped him every step of the way.

Eakins grew up in rural Florida. His mother married Jim Eakins, a long-distance Canadian truck driver, and he was eight when the family moved to Peterborough. He got to know Neilson through summer hockey camps in nearby Lindsay that Neilson operated until his death from cancer in 2003.

"Like anything, you're the product of people you've been around your whole life," says Eakins. "I was fortunate that Roger Neilson became a great friend and a mentor, a father figure -- all those things.

"He's by far been the biggest influence in my hockey career and how I carry myself as a person. He was not afraid of hard work. He was a guy who paid great attention to every detail. He never left any stone unturned with hockey and everything else in his life.

"We both had a passion for the game. I haven't met a man with more dignity that was so well-liked by everyone he touched and met along the way. I kind of strive to have those qualities. I will never be Roger Neilson but if I can get halfway there I'll be doing well. You are hard-pressed to ever hear anyone say anything negative about him, which is a remarkable thing in hockey and in life in general."

Dick Todd, Colin Campbell, Bob Gainey and Doug Jarvis are among scores of others who benefitted from Neilson's guidance, too.

Eakins retired as a player in May 2004 after an AHL season with the Manitoba Moose. On a trip last year to Toronto, he picked up a newspaper and read that the Leafs had let go their minor-league coaching staff and were moving their AHL team to Toronto from St. John's.

"At the time, I hadn't even thought of getting back into hockey," he recalls. "I picked up a phone and called (Leafs GM) John Ferguson on a whim."

He had no ins when he said he'd be interested in an assistant coaching post. He didn't know Ferguson or Paul Maurice, who'd be coaching the AHL Marlies. Yet, he was hired. Word of the respect in which Eakins was held around the hockey world had spread to Air Canada Centre.

"There wasn't much of a transition," Eakins said of working with the Leafs' prospects in the AHL. "I found it real easy."

He'd come to really enjoy passing on tips to younger players.

"As the years progressed in my playing career, I just always found myself spending time with guys in trying to help them," he says. "I liked working with younger guys and helping them get better and get on with their careers.

"It's gratifying. You go home and plunk yourself on the couch and you really feel good about being a good influence."

Rod Langway, Randy Carlyle and Dave Farrish had done the same with him.

"The other part of it is that not many guys can jump into (coaching) and get to work with a guy like Paul Maurice in his first year," he adds. "He's another guy who is patient and giving with his knowledge.

"Some guys hold it all in. He took me under his wing and I've basically been a sponge."

When Maurice replaced Pat Quinn as Leafs coach this year, Maurice chose to continue the partnership.

"Paul has a really open forum with all the coaches talking to all the players, having input on everything," says Eakins. "He's great at knowing what he wants and great at listening to the assistants' ideas."

Taking another page out of Neilson's book, Eakins extensively uses videos as a teaching aid.

He has vivid recollections of his stint with the Leafs in 1998-99, when they left Maple Leaf Gardens and went all the way to the conference final against Buffalo. He was the seventh defenceman, and under Quinn that meant lots of time in the press box instead of on the bench.

"I was there to work hard and keep my mouth shut," says Eakins. "There's no better place to play hockey than in Toronto.

"Everybody talks about the Leafs. When you're a kid growing up in the province you always dream of playing for them."

He got to do that, and quite unexpectedly, he's now coaching them, and optimistic about next season.

"Like Roger, Paul leaves no stone unturned. We'll do everything to have this team prepared. We'll be more up-tempo -- the way the new style is being played. We'll be extremely well-prepared and play at a much higher pace. If we do all that, we should be successful."
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