Even without gear, Ian Herbers is the biggest figure on the ice.
Amid the Crack! of pucks deflecting off glass and the shush of skate blades shaving across the ice, the six-foot-four-inch frame of the Edmonton Oilers’ new assistant coach stands out on the rink as he guides players through a morning practice.
Off his skates, in track pants and a T-shirt, Herbers is no less physically commanding. He extends a brawny hand and settles onto a bench for an interview.
Born in Jasper, Alta., Herbers played with the U of A Golden Bears from 1988 to 1992, then came back as head coach in 2012, leading the team to two consecutive national championships before being hired by the Oilers in July 2015.
How long has coaching been a part of your life?
I started coaching a bantam team while I was a phys-ed major at the U of A. When I signed as a player with the Edmonton Oilers [in 1992], I took a hiatus from coaching. I later worked as a player coach for Todd McLellan [now the Edmonton Oilers head coach] with the International Hockey League’s Cleveland Lumberjacks. I’ve coached in various leagues, camps, summer hockey schools and a women’s hockey school.
What are some of the things you like about being a coach?
Helping people achieve their goals and excel, passing on experiences that I had and helping people with what I learned from U of A coaches Clare Drake, ’58 BEd, ’95 LLD(Honorary), and Billy Moores, ’71 BPE, ’72 Dip(Ed). I work on being a better person, and I like to help players mature and become better people.
Coaches really need to have a teaching mentality, don’t they?
It’s definitely about teaching. Knowledge and preparation are crucial. You have to be able to understand your players. Some are OK with you being hard on them and some need a softer touch.
Are there lessons you’ve learned while coaching that are useful in other areas of your life?
Work ethic and attitude. There are a lot of ups and downs in hockey and lots of things you don’t control, but you do control work ethic and attitude. Also passion — I love coming to the rink every day — and time management. I was the only coach for the Johnstown Chiefs [an East Coast Hockey League team in Pennsylvania]. I did everything: the travel, immigration, housing, coaching. It was non-stop work, and I had to get all the work done and just try to squeeze sleep in.
This is where passion comes in, for sure.
If you don’t have passion, it can be tough to keep your work ethic and positive attitude. I always try to keep getting better and improving. In my three years coaching the Golden Bears, we pushed every day as individuals and as a program. Even when we won we still worked to get better.
It’s an exciting year to be an Oiler, with a new coaching staff and new players such as Connor McDavid. How do you deal with the excitement and the pressure?
I don’t see it as pressure, just exciting. This new job as assistant coach of the Oilers is another exciting challenge for me. Todd is one of the top coaches in the NHL, and the other assistants and the trainers are a great group. We have very skilled players, and next year we’ll be in a new building.
You’ve said the U of A was instrumental in your development as a player and a coach. Did you have particular mentors or memories you carry with you?
Clare Drake and Billy Moores … especially the passion and attention to detail they brought to the game. I learned that it’s all the little things, not one big thing, that will make the team win. As a coach, the alumni were a huge support and helped us make it the best hockey program in the country. We knew there were so many people from the university community who worked hard to support us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.