Garrett James Photography

Looking at three notable Victoria head coaches

During their history, the Victoria Grizzlies have seen many head coaches stand behind the bench. Currently, their bench boss is Craig Didmon. It’s a position he’s held full-time since the 2014-15 season. He’s also served as the club’s general manager for the last eight seasons.

In past seasons, some famous names have stood behind the bench. In fact, when Victoria hosted the 2009 RBC Cup, former National Hockey League player and Stanley Cup champion Geoff Courtnall served as head coach.

Long before Courtnall was head coach, another local star brought Victoria its first championship. BC Hockey League all-time great¬†Campbell Blair¬†was head coach during the Salsa’s 2001 championship run. Prior to that year, the last time a junior hockey team won a league championship was the WHL’s Victoria Cougars in 1981.

For this article, I wanted to talk about these three coaches. Where they came from before Victoria, and where some of them went after their time in BC’s capital city.

Didmon: a hometown guy through and through

So far, Victoria’s longest-serving coach is Didmon, who actually took over behind the bench during the 2013-14 season when Bill Bestwick was fired. He then stepped down in June 2014 and Brad Knight took over.

Less than three months into the 2014-15 season, Knight resigned and Didmon stepped back into the role. Since becoming full-time GM and head coach, he’s led Victoria to a couple of deep playoff runs, including semifinal appearances in 2017 and 2019. The Grizzlies also won the 2021 Port Alberni pod.

Didmon is very familiar to Victoria hockey fans. As a player, he was the highest-scoring player on the Victoria Warriors in 1991-92. As for coaching, he started with the Victoria Cougars of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League as their head coach and general manager from 2002 to 2007.

Didmon joined the Grizzlies during the 2007-08 season as an assistant coach and served in that role for two years, including during the 2009 RBC Cup.

After taking a two-year break, Didmon returned to coaching in 2011-12 as an assistant coach with the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals.

After one season with the Royals, Didmon rejoined the Grizzlies during the 2012-13 season as an assistant coach and assistant GM. He has been head coach and GM since Dec. 1, 2014, when he replaced Knight.

A Stanley Cup champion behind the bench

During the 2007-08 season, head coach Jackson Penney was replaced mid-season by Courtnall, who went on to coach Victoria for the remainder of that season as well as 2008-09.

As stated earlier, Courtnall was head coach during the 2009 RBC Cup. In that tournament, Victoria came in third place with an overall record of 2-2.

Prior to his coaching career, Courtnall had a lengthy junior and NHL career. In the BC Hockey League, he played for Cowichan Valley, and in the WHL, the Victoria Cougars.

Courtnall had a 17-year, 1,049-game NHL career with Boston, Edmonton, Washington, St. Louis, and Vancouver. He scored 30 goals six times and hit 60 points seven times during his career before retiring during the 1999-2000 season. To date, he has not coached anywhere of record since his time in Victoria.

A BCHL all-time great coaches the Salsa

Blair started his coaching career as an assistant at the University of Maine during his final season as a player in 1990-91. After five seasons with the Black Bears, he returned to the BCHL and became an assistant coach for the Salsa before the 1996-97 season. He became head coach for the 1998-99 season, a role he maintained through the championship run in 2000-01.

After the Salsa won the league championship, Blair returned to coaching in the NCAA. He was back as an assistant coach at the University of Maine. He served in that role from 2001 to 2006 and prior to the 2006-07 season, Blair moved northwest to join the University of Alaska-Anchorage as an assistant coach.

He held that title for one season and was promoted to associate head coach in 2007-08, where he stayed until 2012-13. Blair has worked in public relations for the Municipality of Anchorage since 2014.

Lasting legacies

It’s easy to spot the lasting legacies of these coaches. For Blair, he brought Victoria its only league championship and although the Salsa lost the 2001 Doyle Cup, he secured his legacy.

For Courtnall, he coached the Grizzlies on a national stage and even though they didn’t win, they placed third of five teams. That’s very respectable for a first-time appearance in the national junior A championship.

As for Didmon, he is the longest-serving head coach in Grizzlies history. He’s seen dozens of former players move on to the NCAA and Alex Newhook selected in the first round of the NHL Draft.

Under his guidance, he’s made Victoria a desirable place to play. As well, he coached them through the COVID-19 pandemic to win the Port Alberni pod in 2020-21. It’s an accomplishment no other Grizzlies coach – past or future – will likely duplicate.