Hitmen head-coaching hire Paul McFarland brings big-league experience

‘For me personally, to get the opportunity to be a head coach again, that was a huge motivation,’ said McFarland

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As the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen introduced their new head coach Thursday, a handful of current players sat in a cluster at the press conference.

“Hopefully nobody is missing class for this,” quipped Paul McFarland, the incoming skipper for the local junior squad. “We’ll maybe let it slide today fellas, but that’ll be it.”

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It’s been a while since McFarland has had to worry about any of his skaters skipping school. He has been working on NHL benches for six of the past seven seasons, including stints as an assistant with the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Seattle Kraken.

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Along the way, he’s served as a sidekick to Bob Boughner, Mike Babcock, Sheldon Keefe and Dave Hakstol.

The consensus in junior hockey circles is this is a very good get for the Hitmen. McFarland previously played and coached in the OHL and, at age 38, is regarded as a guy with a bright future in the business.

He was out of work for just a few weeks after he and Hakstol were fired by the Kraken in late April. Dave Lowry, who has extensive ties to the Calgary Flames and Hitmen and remains on staff in Seattle, apparently provided a glowing reference.

“Being an NHL assistant … It’s the best league in the world and you get a chance to work with the best players in the world and a lot of smart people, so there’s obviously great experience in that,” McFarland said. “But for me personally, to get the opportunity to be a head coach again, that was a huge motivation.

“I’ve been able to work with some unbelievable people and I have also had the opportunity to work with some unbelievable players,” he added, reflecting on his three stops in ‘The Show.’ “It’s been great experience to get to know those players and get to see them on a daily basis, to see how they work, how they prepare, how focused they are on being the players they are. And I think that’s going to be something I can use as experience to help our young guys here. Obviously, they have the same goals. They want to get to that same level.”

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The Hitmen have missed the playoffs in two of the past three seasons, prompting the coaching change, but the belief is this current crew is on the upswing.

Thing is, with the cyclical nature of junior hockey, your winning window might not remain open for long.

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After burying 30 goals this past winter, a new franchise record among blue-liners, Carter Yakemchuk will undoubtedly hear his name called in the first round of the 2024 NHL Draft, perhaps even among the top 10. The best guess is he will spend only one more season in junior.

The Hitmen roster for the 2024-25 campaign will feature another fascinating defence prospect — Flames pick Axel Hurtig, who was selected in the seventh round last summer and is eager to make the move from Sweden to North America.

“I really believe this group is set up to have success moving forward,” said McFarland, who hails originally from Richmond Hill, Ont., during Thursday’s presser at the Saddledome. “But we’re going to have to put the work in. We talk about raising expectations, raising the bar. We’re going to have to make sure we work at it.

“That work is going to start today.”

Hitmen head coach Paul McFarland
Paul McFarland, newly appointed head coach of the Calgary Hitmen, greets some of his players before a press conference at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Thursday, May 23, 2024. Brent Calver/Postmedia

The new bench boss, a proud father of two, is excited to get at it.

Even if there are elements of the NHL lifestyle that he’s going to miss.

“We were going over the schedule yesterday and talking about our long Eastern trip and our U.S. trip … ” he grinned. “I’m OK with the bus. Hey, don’t get me wrong, the charter plane rides and staying at the Four Seasons, that’s pretty nice. But I’m OK with the bus.”

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