When Bill Peters left the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns after the 2004-05 season to return to the Western Hockey League, he saw it as a graduation. Given his continued connection with the men's hockey program, he could easily be considered a U of L alum.
It wasn't surprising then, that when the National Hockey League locked out its players and shut down professional rinks across North America, Peters made his way back to Lethbridge to assist the program that gave him his first opportunity as a head coach.
"It was a good learning experience for me," says Peters of his run as head coach with the Pronghorns from 2002-03 through 2004-05. "It was my first time as a head coach, coming from Spokane as an assistant, and I was here for three years and I really enjoyed my time. It was a good situation for me and that phase of my development as a coach, but I worked with and for good people and that's always important."
The connection to people and the relationships cultivated are what ties Peters to the program today. Now an assistant coach with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings (working with another former Horns coach in Mike Babcock), Peters regularly speaks with current head coach Greg Gatto. It was Gatto who headed to Detroit late last season to spend a weekend with the Red Wings, watching practice and film sessions and gaining the kind of knowledge you can only glean from true professionals.
"We kept talking this fall and he asked what I was doing to keep busy and if I'd like to come up to Lethbridge," says Peters. "This was an opportunity with their bye week to come up and spend some time with the team, and I think it's been as good for me as it was for them."
Peters ran practices, led film sessions, instituted Red Wings philosophies on power play and breakout situations and more than anything, worked the club at a high tempo. While the dividends of his visit have yet to show in the results column, the experience is another valuable building block in establishing the Pronghorns program and a level of expectation.
"I like the group that Greg has here, they worked very hard for me," says Peters of a squad that has just one win on the season but is one of the least experienced rosters in Canada West.
"These guys don't know each other as well as they are going to in years three and four, obviously, and chemistry plays a huge part of it, consistency in the culture of your program and what's expected."
Peters is consistent with that message and it has taken him all the way to the NHL. He understands struggle, winning only four and three games respectively his final two seasons with the Horns. But he believed in his ideals and parlayed that into success both at the WHL and American Hockey League levels.
"When you have tough times, it forces you to dig deep and reflect and to try and get better," he says. "You're always asking your players to get better, so as a coach, you have to continue to evolve and get better as well.
"I was fortunate, we didn't have as much success on the ice as we'd have liked but I had some great kids to work with. Ryan Epp, Chad Kletzel, Billy Katelnikoff, Andy Houthuys, they're good people. It would have been nice to get some more wins but they're quality men."
That was in evidence over the course of Peters' week in town, as he also skated with the Catholic Central Hockey Academy and was assisted by Houthuys. Epp, Kletzel and Katelnikoff have all coached in the minor hockey ranks as well since their playing days with the Horns.
What's next for Peters, when and if the NHL returns to the ice, is a desire to become a head coach again, this time on the biggest stage.
"For sure, most people want to be a head coach and most people want to coach at the highest level and for me that's the natural step," says Peters. "I enjoy being a head coach and for me to become a head coach in the national league, I need some NHL experience and I'm getting it in a good organization right now."
Having had it all start at the U of L is something Peters will never forget. So, while he may not have the parchment, it's apparent he'll gladly play the role of an alumnus and ambassador wherever he goes.
This story first appeared in the December 2012 issue of the Legend. For a look at the entire issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.