By Sam Laskaris of AnishinabekNews.ca
SAULT STE. MARIE – Former National Hockey League player Denny Lambert will once again be juggling responsibilities.
Lambert, who works as a police officer with the Anishinabek Police Services in Garden River First Nation, has been hired as the head coach of the Soo Thunderbirds.
The Thunderbirds, a Junior A franchise, compete in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League (NOJHL).
Lambert, who played in 504 NHL games, said his police work will not interfere with his coaching duties.
“I know the schedule and the timetables,” he said. “They’re going to try and work around my schedule.”
Lambert added that if his police work does conflict with a Thunderbirds’ game or practice, the team has three capable assistant coaches who can run the squad in his absence.
Though he took last year off from coaching, before that he had managed to find the time for his police and hockey jobs.
“It’s very exciting to get back into it,” said Lambert, who helped coach a Sault Ste. Marie-based Bantam AAA squad during the 2018-19 campaign.
Lambert is no stranger to junior hockey circles.
He had served as an associate coach for the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League during a portion of the 2016-17 campaign.
That same season he had also worked for a company that oversaw the operations of the Thunderbirds.
And before that he had worked as a coach for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for eight seasons, including three as head coach.
Lambert, 50, said he was itching to get back into the game. Part of that was because he was no longer following the hockey pursuits of his twin sons who are now older and gearing up for their third year in university.
“I had a lot of free time,” Lambert said, adding he especially loves working with junior players so he can pass on the knowledge he has acquired from the sport. “That’s where the void was and what I needed in life.”
Thunderbirds’ general manager Trevor Zachary is thrilled Lambert has agreed to coach the franchise.
“He was the first guy I reached out to,” Zachary said.
Zachary believes that the fact Lambert, a member of Batchewana First Nation, is now the Thunderbirds’ coach, more Indigenous players could be looking for a chance to suit up for the club.
“It’s not going to hurt,” Zachary said. “There’s certainly some [Indigenous] kids locally that have a chance to play.”
The Thunderbirds did not have any Indigenous players on their roster this past season. But the club did have an Indigenous player, Kaiden McDonald from Inuvik, who served as the team’s captain two years ago.
As he was named as the Thunderbirds’ head coach on May 20, Lambert said it is too early to speculate if the club will include any Indigenous players this coming season.
“I would absolutely love that,” he said.
Lambert will be more than willing to give Indigenous players the opportunity to make the team.
“I know for a fact some kids get left out,” he said.
Lambert said he will be utilizing his Indigenous contacts, including former NHL players, to see if they have any suggestions of Indigenous players who might crack the Thunderbirds’ roster.
“It’s all word of mouth,” Lambert said. “You just talk to these guys and ask them, ‘Do you know of any 16 to 20-year-olds that could play?’”
Like all others in the sports world, Lambert is waiting to see when coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic restrictions will be lifted. The NOJHL regular season is scheduled to start in September but the league needs approval from Hockey Canada officials, who will seek guidance from national health officials, before resuming.
“Safety is number one for everybody,” Lambert said. “When it’s ready to go, we’ll be ready.”
Lambert added he can commence his Thunderbirds’ work now.
“There’s a lot of stuff I can do on my own,” said Lambert, who during his NHL career suited up for the Ottawa Senators, Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers (who relocated to Winnipeg) and the then named Anaheim Mighty Ducks, now simply Anaheim Ducks.
“I’ll start researching players. That’s part of the stuff I can do at home.”