When Matt Leduc first started his coaching career two and a half years ago, at the age of 18, he was prone to some rookie mistakes.
When drawing up plays in practice, for example, the 6-foot-5 defenseman would stand right in front of the board, blocking the view of most of the players. Or, when coaching 8-year-olds, he would teach them as if they were 15-year-olds. Normal mistakes, his former coach and current boss Milan Dragicevic said.
“As coaches, we have to adjust our way of thinking when we’re dealing with different age groups,” Dragicevic said.
But Leduc adapted quickly, and Dragicevic has watched the Spokane Chiefs’ 20-year-old blossom into a promising young coach in his own right.
“He’s really adapted and really changed for the better,” Dragicevic said. “He’s gonna be a great coach someday.”
Leduc first met Dragicevic during his 14-year-old season playing for the Richmond Blues in British Columbia, when Dragicevic was his coach. At the end of that year, in 2015, the Chiefs selected Leduc 30th overall in the bantam draft, and in the past four seasons Leduc has played 153 games with Spokane.
Dragicevic has his own history with the Chiefs: he played 90 games for them between 1988 and 1990. He was traded in the middle of the 1989-90 season, one year before the Chiefs won the Memorial Cup.
After Leduc moved to Spokane, Dragicevic kept in touch with his family, who lived in the same neighborhood as he did. In 2018, he invited Leduc to speak to families and players before the Western Hockey League draft on what to expect from the Western Hockey League.
“He did a really great job, very articulate, very professional. He spoke really well,” Dragicevic said.
After that, he brought back Leduc as a full-time instructor in the summers to work with his BC Selects program.
And last year, when the WHL season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, Leduc started work even earlier.
“I had the best summer job out there,” Leduc said. “The only better would have been in Edmonton or Toronto in the NHL (playoff) bubbles.”
Even though the Chiefs haven’t played since mid-March, it’s been even longer for Leduc. A shoulder injury last December sidelined him for the rest of the season, and the last time he played in a WHL game was Dec. 18, 2019.
“I just miss the camaraderie,” Leduc said. “It’s a lot different (playing) than when you’re practicing.”
As a player, though, Leduc has proven to be a reliable defenseman for the Chiefs.
“He’s a big body, a really good stick,” said fellow 20-year-old Bobby Russell, who has been Leduc’s primary defensive partner with the Chiefs. “His positioning and the way he can gap up on guys, that’s a huge thing I’ve been trying to add into my game.”
Throughout the offseason, Leduc has also benefited from extra time on the ice with Adam Maglio, the Chiefs’ head coach. They have also discussed the value of Leduc’s time coaching youth teams and players.
“(Chiefs assistant coach) Adam Deadmarsh and I were talking the other week, and we always said we wish we would have coached before we played,” Maglio said. “You learn a little bit more of how important the details are, of how important it is to do things the right way, and do things with maximum effort while you’re doing them. I think that’s something Matt and I have talked about.
“For Matt, it’s probably been a little eye-opening because he probably didn’t expect to do this much coaching in the offseason, but it’s become a bit of his full-time job here.”
Dragicevic estimated that during the past three years, Leduc has worked with more than 400 players, and Dragicevic has watched Leduc adapt his teaching to the age group he is working with. He just seems to understand what kids are going through, and what skill they are ready to learn next, no matter their age, Dragicevic said.
“He’s patient, he understands them, he smiles, he has fun with the kids, and he brings a sense of calm,” Dragicevic said. “He doesn’t have to yell to get his point across.”
Leduc’s playing career also lends him great credibility with younger players, and if they have questions about the WHL, Dragicevic said he just points them to Leduc.
“I love coaching and passing on what I know,” Leduc said. “I like to take players and develop a specific program with each of them. Each has different needs in the game.”
Yet for as much as he enjoys coaching, Leduc is eager to get playing again. He said his shoulder is healed, and through some geographic luck has been able to skate regularly with fellow Chiefs defensemen Russell and Graham Sward, and occasionally with Ty Smith, who is likely to play in the AHL or NHL next season. All four spend their offseasons in the Vancouver area, Leduc said.
“All left-handed defensemen,” Leduc said of the quartet. “They breed us here, apparently.”
He misses being in Spokane and is eager for the season to restart, something the WHL plans to do with games on Jan. 8. Beyond this season, Leduc hopes he can keep playing hockey for a while longer.
“Hopefully I have a lengthy playing career,” Leduc said. “But after that, I hope I have a career in coaching.”
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