The Darren Naylor saga took another twist Wednesday when the embattled former general manager and head coach of the Nanaimo Clippers of the B.C. Hockey League was announced as the new head coach of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
The Clippers overcame a season of turmoil to reach the 2022 BCHL final, eventually losing to the champion Penticton Vees, under assistant coach Colin Birkas.
Naylor watched the playoff run from the sidelines after being placed, in February, on league-mandated administrative leave for the rest of the season for allegedly breaching the league’s coaches code of conduct. The BCHL has offered few details about that situation, other than to say an investigation was underway. Birkas was also on league-ordered administrative leave until allowed to return to the Clippers late in the regular season and then took the team Naylor assembled to the league final.
The Clippers subsequently signed Birkas to a “long-term deal” last month to manage and coach the club.
Asked if he felt it was his team that made the playoff run, Naylor replied: “Of course it was. It was [owner] Wes Mussio’s team and he put me in place as next in charge and I hired Colin [Birkas]. I’m proud of what we did in my five years in Nanaimo. We were second in the league only to Penticton over that time frame in terms of the number of players we sent on to play in NCAA Division 1. I enjoyed my time in Nanaimo but never got to say goodbye to all the good people there.”
Naylor, 53, said he couldn’t comment on his current standing in the BCHL. The league’s commissioner, Chris Hebb, didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
“It wasn’t working out [in the BCHL] and this was a good opportunity for me and it’s best for me. It’s the next challenge,” he said.
Naylor played in the Western Hockey League for the Victoria Cougars from 1987 to 1989 with teammates such as Len Barrie, Micah Aivazoff, Clayton Young, Joel Savage and Jackson Penney, and later in a minor-pro career spanning from Jacksonville, Florida, to Anchorage, Alaska.
Naylor takes over an OCN franchise that was a league power in the early 2000s, winning the MJHL championship five consecutive years from 1999 to 2003 and the national Junior A championship in 2002. But the Blizzard, located in The Pas, have fallen on hard times and were 18-29-7 last season and have not made the playoffs since 2017-18.
“OCN liked what I did in Nanaimo. I told them I’m going to use the same recipe I did in Nanaimo and they agreed with that,” said Naylor.
“OCN struggled last season and are in a rebuild. That was the same as when I came to Nanaimo with only one player returning from the previous season. I like to build things and this is a new chapter in that story.”
The Clipper ship, meanwhile, is now Birkas’ to steer.
“I am very excited to continue to work in the best league in Canada,” he said, in a statement.
“Every night, we play the best players and the best teams and get these young men exposure to the NCAA Division 1 colleges and NHL teams. It’s a privilege and an honour to be able to do this for a living.”