Peter Schaefer is in his first season as head coach/general manager of the Surrey Eagles.

Schaefer learning on fly behind Eagles’ bench

Former NHL forward adjusting to new career as BCHL head coach in Surrey.

When he retired from pro hockey, Peter Schaefer admits, he never saw himself here at South Surrey Arena early on a Wednesday morning, trying to get the office fax machine to work.

But the 36-year-old former NHL forward with a trio of titles with the Surrey Eagles – head coach, general manager and president – is busy trying to file paperwork with Hockey Canada and the BC Hockey League to complete a few player acquisitions… so fax-machine repair man has been added to his business card, for this week at least.

Nobody else is around anyway, save a visiting Peace Arch News reporter.

Schaefer, a native of Yellow Grass, Sask., is in his second year with the Eagles and first as head coach – he was an assistant coach last season – and he admits the career path isn’t one he thought he’d take when he retired from the ice in 2011.

“It’s not something I ever thought I’d do. I thought maybe I’d coach minor hockey, helping out friends and family,” said Schaefer, a father of three. “But I never thought I’d be here doing this. It’s all progressed naturally and I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Schaefer, who played professionally from 1997-2011 – including two stints with the Vancouver Canucks – has known members of the Surrey Eagles ownership group, including current majority owner Chuck Westgard and former owner Ronnie Paterson, for years, dating back to his NHL days.

It was during a golf trip to Mexico a few years ago that the idea of coaching in Surrey was suggested to him.

“Chuck wanted me to come out and give it a try but, at the time, I wasn’t really interested. But after enough hounding, I figured I would give it a try,” Schaefer laughed.

He spent last season as an assistant coach to Matt Erhart and – during the off-season – added president to his job description. When Erhart left the Eagles in June for a coaching job with the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants, Schaefer took over head coach/GM duties, too.

“There’s a learning curve, for sure. Coaching hockey is the easy part, and I really like working with the kids, but it’s stuff like learning the Hockey Canada registry, getting guys signed to cards – that kind of stuff – that you have to figure out,” he said. “But last year with Matt, we kind of shared some of those duties, so it wasn’t completely new to me.”

The hardest part of the new job, Schaefer said, is having to tell players they’ve been traded or released. Schaefer isn’t used to being the bearer of such bad news, but is rather familiar with being on the other side of the table.

Through a long pro career in which he’d been bought out, released and traded – from the Canucks to Ottawa in 2002, after a contract dispute that included then-Canucks GM Brian Burke famously threatening to “drive him to the airport,” if he wished to play elsewhere  – he knows what it’s like to hear the words he now delivers to his teenage players.

“When you have to cut a kid or tell him he’s been traded or scratched from the lineup – I don’t enjoy that part of it. It’s the part of the game I really didn’t like when I played, and I don’t think that will ever change.

“It’s always going to be an uncomfortable scenario. And at the end of the day, you just try to be honest and upfront with them.”

Schaefer’s players-first mentality likely stems from the fact that’s it’s been barely two years since he last laced up skates professionally – after playing 16 games with Vancouver in 2010 he was released and finished the year playing in Europe – and the fact that, deep down, he knows he could have continued his career there for a few more seasons.

Instead, he said, he was frustrated by the business side of the game and decided to come home.

He spent just over a year for family time before taking the Eagles’ offer to get back into the game.

“I have three kids under four, so it’s probably harder being at home than it was being at work every day,” he laughed. “But it was a lot of fun, too. I wouldn’t change a thing. And now we live like two minutes down the street, so it’s still great to be nice and close.”

So far, for the first-year coach, it’s been a fairly successful season behind the bench. The team is retooling its roster on the fly after last season’s run to the Royal Bank Cup, and though currently on a three-game losing streak, the team’s been competitive and sits with a 5-6 record in the BCHL’s Mainland Division, just five points out of first place.

Schaefer admits he probably has a little bit more roster juggling to do – assuming the fax machine co-operates – before he’s completely satisfied with his lineup.

“I’m just trying to be the best coach I can be, and trying to get the most out of each of the players.”

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