BONNYVILLE - It's slowly starting to sink in, but T.J. Millar can still hardly believe that he's just days away from leaving Bonnyville to join the Toronto Maple Leafs' coaching development program.
“It feels like a dream come true,” the former assistant coach for the Bonnyville Pontiacs told the Lakeland Today on Aug. 27.
“To tell you the truth, I think I am still reacting – it's a constant feeling of, 'Is this real? Is this really happening?'”
This is the inaugural year for the development program, which the Leafs unveiled back in May as an effort to break down barriers so a more diverse and inclusive range of people can join and excel at the sport. The program has two facets – a management side as well as the coaching side Millar is joining – and the idea is it will benefit participants like Millar, as well as the rest of the sport.
Through it, Millar will be able to work with coaching staff from all levels of the organization, both on and off the ice, from a developmental as well as real-time coaching standpoint with National Hockey League, American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League players. He'll learn from top coaches, including the Leafs' head coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff, Leafs' development staff led by Hockey Hall of Famer Hayley Wickenheiser, and other leaders within the organization.
For Millar, the move is the next step in a successful career that started with a sports management degree in Finland. While doing that degree, he worked with the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League, before moving on to spend a couple seasons with the Hawks in Nipawin, Sask., where the team captured a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League championship. He's now spent three years with the Bonnyville Pontiacs as assistant coach.
“We had some amazing times here in Bonnyville – I was very fortunate to have a very successful team with a 41-win season in year one, which was something that was a very incredible thing, a very rewarding experience for me,” he said, adding, he received nothing but support and encouragement from the Pontiacs when he decided to apply for the Leafs coaching program.
“I'm just excited to continue along my journey with the Maple Leafs organization.”
Millar describes his coaching philosophy as one of creativity and connection. He places an emphasis on building relationships with players so he understands who they are.
“At the end of the day, relationships are what matter most, and in my experiences over the last few years, when dealing with particular situations that may not be easy for teams to succeed through, it's the relationships and the connections that matter most and that get you through to your goal with the end in mind,” he explained.
Millar said he applied for the position after being encouraged by friends who had sent it to him.
“It's a great story for me personally, because it goes back to those relationships that I've made in my life,” he said. “It came at a time in my life where, we talk about what the opportunity is – it's an opportunity to create awareness and diversify talents, but it was something in my mind that I wanted to make an impact, some way, somehow.”
He's taking that philosophy with him to the Leafs, where he's excited to take everything in and grow personally and professionally.
“To get to learn the nuances of professional hockey, (I'll) just be eyes wide open, taking everything in – the habits, perspective of being a coach at the professional level, co-ordinating relationships and preparing with players and other organizations or other staff members, I'm just excited to take everything in, to be part of the experience and contribute in any way that I can.”
In a press release, Pontiacs coach and general manager Rick Swan described Millar's development as a coach as being “incredible.” Swan expressed his excitement to see Millar succeed in the new position.
“On behalf of the Bonnyville Pontiacs organization, I want to thank T.J. for his commitment, drive, and work ethic over the past three seasons,” stated Swan.
For his part, Millar said Swan and assistant coach Neil Langridge provided a high level of mentorship that allowed him to grow as a coach.
“The Bonnyville community has made a tremendous impact on my life, and I'm just very thankful for the relationships and the experiences that I've had here – and I will miss the town of Bonnyville significantly.”
According to the Pontiacs press release, the program Millar is joining is a full-time one-year paid contract position.