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Spokane Chiefs
Sports >  Spokane Chiefs

Trip down Memorial Lane: Chiefs players ‘never, ever wondered where you stood’ with coach Bryan Maxwell

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

It was the middle of the 1991-92 hockey season. Scott Bailey was playing well – as well as any goalie in the Western Hockey League.

Yet there he was in Bryan Maxwell’s office, listening to his coach trade him away.

“I was there when he was on speaker phone with a couple of teams,” said Bailey, who admitted he had missed curfew a few nights, and that Maxwell knew it.

Bailey went home and had dinner with his girlfriend, whom he eventually marrying. He told her he was being traded to the Prince Albert Raiders, about 14 hours away in Saskatchewan.

By morning, Maxwell had a change of heart. He decided to keep his all-star goalie and wasn’t going to “cut my nose to spite my face,” as Bailey said the coach told him.

“He made his point,” Bailey said. “I can assure you after that I kept my nose clean.”

It was just the sort of experience that encapsulated what players said of Maxwell, who a season before led the Chiefs to their 1991 Memorial Cup championship.

“Maxy’s a genuine person,” Bailey said. “You never, ever wondered where you stood with the man.”

Shane Maitland, a forward on that team, said Maxwell’s honest approach meant he knew his players well, and that he knew just how to motivate and coach each of them.

“He’s the guy you wanted to work for,” Maitland said. “You didn’t want to disappoint.”

‘An alpha male’

Maxwell first arrived in Spokane a season before the championship year, in 1989. He came with pedigree, having won a Memorial Cup in 1987 with the Medicine Hat Tigers. He spent the next two seasons in the NHL, as an assistant with the Los Angeles Kings.

The Chiefs team he inherited was young and talented, led by future NHL players like Ray Whitney and Pat Falloon, but it needed a leader, Maxwell said.

“You needed an alpha male to get everybody going in the same direction,” he said. “We had a lot of great kids, a lot of skill, but no direction.”

In the mid-1970s, Maxwell was a top-level defenseman with Medicine Hat, and in 1975 the Minnesota North Stars selected him fourth overall in the NHL draft. His pro career spanned eight NHL seasons and four teams, and he played 331 games before retiring in 1985.

He brought a defensive pedigree to his coaching: In 1986-87, Medicine Hat allowed the fewest goals in the WHL.

He also brought with him assistant coach Gary Braun, who was “invaluable” to the team, Maxwell said.

“I think we really blended together well,” Maxwell said of Braun. “I was a little bit of a loose cannon at times, and he wasn’t.”

Bailey wasn’t with the Chiefs in 1989, but Maxwell’s attention to detail was immediately apparent to the goalie when he joined the Chiefs in 1990. Maxwell noticed, Bailey said, whether players crossed over or not when they retrieved a puck, or whether they snapped their passes or swept their passes, or whether they took a brief stickhandle before they shot.

“He had a very keen sense for the minute details of the game,” Bailey said. “I was almost spoiled, because when I turned pro after I got drafted, my first few coaches were nowhere even in the area code of coaching a system the way that Maxy coached a system.”

For all the offensive firepower the Chiefs had that season – and with Falloon and Whitney, who scored 131 of the team’s league-leading 435 goals, they had plenty of that – their defense helped make them a complete team. The 275 goals they allowed were second fewest in the league that year.

“Maxy, he was just an unbelievable coach and motivator, and we all kinda bought into his plan right away,” said forward Steve Junker, who played three seasons for Maxwell. “He taught me stuff, and I think the other guys would speak the same way, that I carried throughout my whole pro career. He made me the player I was, for sure.”

The Chiefs really got on a run after the trade deadline, after which they went 17-5-0 in the regular season. Goalie Trevor Kidd joined the Chiefs at the deadline, and even in his brief time with Maxwell, the coach left a lasting impression on the future pro.

“Maxwell taught a lot of us how to be professionals,” Trevor Kidd said. “Execution is all details. You can have the best line in the world, but if you don’t have the attention to details and battle to compete, it doe sn’t matter.

“Maxy was awesome. To me the first thing was the attitude to want to do all those things. When you have the buy-in to do all those things, to the opposition, that’s a tough team to beat.”

By the time they reached the playoffs – when the Chiefs lost just once in 19 games – they were humming.

“There’s no part of our game that wasn’t finely tuned when we went to the playoffs,” Maxwell said. “(We could) throw out Ray Whitney and Patty Falloon to kill penalties, and they throw out five defensive players to stop them.”

Tough, principled, hilarious

But for all the success and accolades the Chiefs earned that season, WHL Coach of the Year wasn’t one of them. That honor went to Tom Renney in Kamloops, whose Blazers won the West Division, five points ahead of the Chiefs.

Most of the stars from the 1991 team moved on after the Memorial Cup, but the Chiefs were still competitive. They finished second in the West Division and won a playoff series before the Seattle Thunderbirds upset them the next round.

“We still had a really good team,” Maxwell said. “We lost a lotta guys, but we had the attitude that we knew what it took to win.”

Bailey, who started 65 games in 1991-92, said Maxwell probably did a better job coaching that season, and the WHL at-large agreed, honoring him as coach of the year.

By then, Bailey had heard most of Maxwell’s tried-and-true phrases, so ingrained was the system the coach had installed in Spokane.

“He always had sayings. He had a saying for everything,” Bailey said. “We’d be working on systems, he’d be at the whiteboard, and some young guy would say, ‘What if?’ … You’d be standing there as a vet, and as soon as a rookie said something you’d say, ‘Oh, here we go.’ ”

He was tough, and he was principled, Bailey said of the coach, but he was also hilarious.

“There was a time to have fun and definitely a time to come and work and win,” said Kerry Toporowski, who played two seasons for Maxwell. “It was a good balance between the work and play with him.”

A homecoming for Maxwell

Maxwell stayed on until January 1994, when he abruptly quit midseason, citing “irreparable” differences.

In November 1995, though, he was hired as director of hockey operations and head coach of the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Maxwell grew up in Lethbridge, and the homecoming, he said, was fantastic.

“All my family got a chance to go to all the games,” he said. “This was a great stop for me.”

It wasn’t without incident: The following March, the WHL suspended Maxwell after an alleged assault on a referee. He was barred from all Hurricanes games for nearly a year.

But he and the Hurricanes bounced back. At the end of the 1996-97 season, Lethbridge won the WHL championship and finished as runner-up in the Memorial Cup finals. Maxwell was not the coach of record – that was former Chiefs assistant Parry Shockey – but he was there as the director of hockey operations.

He was head coach of Lethbridge the next five seasons, until he was fired midseason in December 2002. He coached the Victoria Salmon Kings for two seasons from 2004 -06, and then returned to Lethbridge, but “laid low,” he said, driving trucks for a while.

All along, though, he was coaching minor hockey in town, running coaching seminars and staying involved with the sport he said.

He had one more brief stint with the Hurricanes as an assistant in 2014-15, but that marked the end of his coaching career. He is 65 years old now and said it was a blessing to be a part of the Hurricanes’ success in his hometown.

“To come home here, it was awesome,” he said. “To be able to fill the building here, and all your friends and family and people I’ve known my whole life, for them to come here and watch us win … It doesn’t get any better than that.”

After leaving Spokane in 1992, Bailey’s playing career sent him all over the country. He played for 12 teams in eight leagues, including 19 games with the Boston Bruins. He said he never had a coach quite like Maxwell.

“If I had to go back through all my coaches, junior and pro, Maxy is an incredibly unique person,” he said.

Maxwell’s commitment to giving and maintaining clear expectations was something Bailey never forgot, and he said he takes it with him into his current career in law enforcement in Edmonton, Alberta.

“In my work now, I find it way easier to operate in an environment where you know where you stand with someone,” Bailey said. “These are my expectations, this is how I feel about this, if you do this, this will be my response.

“The lay of the land was always crystal clear with Maxy. He was never disingenuous. … I think that’s one of the reasons most of the guys who played for Maxy loved him.”

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