Dietz: Buddies King, Eakins meet for first time as coaches when Hawks host Ducks

Friendships begin in myriad ways.

During a long conversation. After a round of golf. During youth, high school or collegiate athletics. Through fantasy sports.

Rarely, though, do they begin after an epic fight, followed by years of disdain.

Yet, that's what happened with interim Blackhawks coach Derek King and Anaheim Ducks coach Dallas Eakins, whose teams square off Saturday at the United Center.

While playing junior hockey 35 years ago - King for the Oshawa Generals and Eakins for the Peterborough Petes - the two literally despised each other.

During one memorable game, the gloves flew off and King landed what might be the biggest punch the 6-foot-2 Eakins ever took.

One problem: King's joy lasted all of one second.

"The next thing I know I'm on the ice," King said. "I shouldn't have woken him up because he laid a beating on me after that."

The odds were long indeed that the two would ever get along, let alone become lifelong pals.

"If you asked me back in the '80s if I would like this guy, I would say not a chance," King admitted.

But fate intervened and they ended up as roommates while playing for the Maple Leafs in 1998-99.

The more they talked and hung out, the more they realized how much they had in common.

Suddenly, King realized that Eakins wasn't such a bad guy after all. And Eakins couldn't get enough of King's dry sense of humor, zest for life and willingness to do absolutely anything for anybody.

"He is literally one of those guys that if I were ever in any kind of a predicament, he would do anything to help me," Eakins said. "And that's not just our relationship - he would do that for a whole bunch of different people. ... He's just an unbelievable, caring human being."

Now, that's not to say Saturday is going to be one big love fest.

Hardly. These are two guys who desperately want to win - and also know how to give each other a really hard time.

"It won't be easy looking at that ugly mug of his," Eakins said.

Said a laughing King: "OK, then. Now I know where we stand. He's ready for tomorrow."

Helping hand

It was Eakins who gave King his first coaching opportunity by hiring him as an assistant with the Toronto Marlies in 2009. During their four years together Eakins watched King develop minor league forwards into full-time NHLers.

Eakins has paid more attention to the Hawks since King took over for Jeremy Colliton on Nov. 6 and likes what he sees.

"Kinger has a real great ability to relieve what we perceive as pressure," Eakins said. "I really believe players and organizations put so much unnecessary pressure on themselves.

"It's great to have somebody like Derek in your room who can deflect it, and maybe even make a little bit of fun about it or talk to you about how it's totally unnecessary that you're feeling this pressure.

"He also has the ability to sit you down and instead of 'F this' and 'F that' he'll very calmly and with honesty tell you that maybe you're not doing your job."

The Hawks are 13-9-3 under King and riding a three-game winning streak coming into Saturday's game. Anaheim, meanwhile, has shocked many pundits by hanging around the top of the Pacific Division most of the season. The Ducks were 19-13-7 heading into their game Friday at Minnesota.

The combination of COVID restrictions with the fact that Anaheim is playing on back-to-back nights means King and Eakins won't have much 1-on-1 time together.

If they did, Eakins expects a bottle of wine may have been opened in King's office.

"I'm sure he's thinking that," King said. "There may (have been) a box, not a bottle."

No surprise there. It was, after all, over a beer when this friendship first began to blossom.

"You don't meet too many bad guys in hockey, (but I was) thinking he probably was a bad guy just the way he chased me around the ice and the way we butted heads," King said. "But I sat and had a drink with him and we just hit it off.

"It's been a great relationship."

Blackhawks interim head coach Derek King gets his point across during a Dec. 5 game against the New York Islanders in Elmont, N.Y. Associated Press
Anaheim Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins surveys the situation during a Dec. 11 game in Pittsburgh. Associated Press
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