Longtime friends Derek King, Dallas Eakins cross paths in Ducks-Blackhawks game
The former Maple Leafs teammates squared off as NHL head coaches Saturday for the first time.
Two decades after they roomed together as teammates on the 1998-99 Maple Leafs, Derek King and Dallas Eakins remain close friends.
Entering their first meeting as opposing NHL head coaches Saturday — with King coaching the Blackhawks and Eakins the Ducks — they proved they hadn’t forgotten how to rib each other, either.
‘‘I’ll look down at their bench and see if I can crack a smile on his face,’’ King said before the game. ‘‘He’s pretty serious. I doubt he’ll look at me.’’
‘‘The only thing I’ll be laughing at is his ugly mug,’’ Eakins retorted.
The Ducks-Hawks game — a 3-0 win for the Hawks — represented the culmination of long journeys for both men.
In 1998-99, King was a proven scorer enjoying his last productive NHL season (52 points in 81 games) and Eakins a journeyman defenseman on his seventh team (he played only 18 games for the Leafs).
Ten years later, King was growing his family in Arizona when Eakins, then a rising-star coach, needed a second assistant to flesh out the staff of the Toronto Marlies, a Leafs affiliate.
That’s when their careers intersected again. King spent four seasons under Eakins with the Marlies, then stuck around for two more after Eakins took the Oilers’ NHL job.
They’ve stayed in close contact through each career step since.
When King was named the Hawks’ interim coach in November, one of the first peers he heard from was Eakins, now in his third season as the Ducks’ coach.
‘‘I’m not sure there were many [people] more excited than me when he got this chance,’’ Eakins said. ‘‘I’ve always been super-proud of King. I’ve seen firsthand the positive effect and influence that he’s had on young players.
‘‘I still run across players from that [Marlies] group — whether they’re playing in the NHL or maybe they’re scouting now — and one of the first questions they ask me is: ‘Hey, how’s ‘Kinger’ doing? Have you talked to ‘Kinger?’ ’’
Eakins and King, both 54, talked on the phone for hours in those early days of November, when King was thrilled but overwhelmed by the endless duties he was expected to fulfill and the messy situation he inherited. Eakins’ advice helped guide him through that chaos.
‘‘Dallas is just a fair, honest coach,’’ King said Nov. 10. ‘‘He’s a little more technical than I was, but I learned a lot from him [about] what to look for.’’
‘‘Whenever you end up in one of these jobs for the first time, as much as you’re confident and you’re ready and you’ve earned it, there is a little question in your head, like, ‘Holy man, I’m coaching an NHL team,’ ’’ Eakins said. ‘‘The one thing that I really wanted to reiterate to ‘Kinger’ was that he was ready for it. [I told him] to trust his instincts — he already knows everything to do — and to coach the way he’s been coaching. It’s a big mistake to suddenly take on a different personality or a different style of coaching because you’re at the highest level. In the end, you have to be you.’’
In the months since, they’ve ‘‘text-messaged back and forth a little bit,’’ King said, but not during the last few days.
Both knew this matchup was coming up on the schedule, and both knew that meant it was time to suspend their contact. If the Hawks somehow make a miraculous playoff push this spring, the Ducks are one of the teams they probably will have to catch.
‘‘It’ll be interesting,’’ King said. ‘‘Obviously, he was a big part of me getting into coaching and a big reason why I’m here, [and] I’m happy for him that he’s doing well. But I hope he doesn’t do well tonight.’’
Come Sunday, however, their friendship should be back on — at least until the Ducks return to Chicago on March 8.