A return to Alberta, Canada, has been a homecoming for Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters.
In a way, doubly so.
Peters was born in Three Hills, a town of 3,300 people northeast of Calgary. His family moved to Killam, about 135 miles to the north and located southeast of Edmonton, and it became his second hometown.
With that in mind, it was a personal thrill for Peters to return for the first time as an NHL head coach. The Canes faced the Calgary Flames on Thursday, and will take on the Edmonton Oilers on Friday to complete the back-to-back set of games in Alberta.
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“It will be fun to see a lot of familiar faces,” Peters said. “To see family and friends is always a good thing. Always.”
The Hurricanes went into the Flames game as the only winless team in the NHL, with an 0-3-2 record. They began a four-game Canadian road trip Tuesday with a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock once called Peters a “straight, old-fashioned Alberta redneck.” He said it as a compliment and Peters doesn’t mind or disagree. He’s straightforward. He’s also proud of his upbringing.
Peters, 49, spent the first 10 years of his life living on a cattle and grain farm in Three Hills, which claims Willie de Wit among its more famous natives. De Wit won the silver medal as a boxing heavyweight in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, losing the gold to Henry Tillman of the United States.
Canes forward Zach Boychuk is from Airdrie, Alberta, and said he played a lot of minor hockey in Three Hills.
“Actually, two-and-a-half hills,” Boychuk said, smiling. “One hill is a lot shorter.”
As for the town, Boychuk said, “It’s small. They have the hockey arena where I played a lot of minor hockey. I think there’s a farm right in the middle of it.”
Peters laughed this week when asked about Boychuk’s “two-and-a-half-hills” description.
“It’s three, for sure,” he said. “There’s great land there. There are farms everywhere. It’s a blue-collar, small community with a little bit of oil and gas they found over the years, but more wheat farming and mixed farming.”
It was in Killam where Peters came of age. It was in that small town of 1,000 in Flagstaff County, in the heart of the Alberta grain belt, that he played hockey and baseball. It’s also where he suffered an injury that would have a lasting effect.
Peters, then 15, sustained a badly injured ankle in a car-bicycle accident. Pins were placed in the ankle and it would hinder his hockey-playing career.
Peters’ father, Bill Sr., once told the Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper that he believed Bill would have made it to the NHL had it not been for the accident.
Bill Peters doesn’t talk about himself much, but apparently adopted Killam’s town motto: “Life without compromise.” He went on to play hockey at Red Deer College in Alberta, where he was coached by Babcock, who became a mentor and close friend.
Boychuk, who played his 100th career NHL game Thursday, said he first met Peters at charity events a few years ago. Boychuk played junior hockey for the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the Western Hockey League when Peters was coach at the University of Lethbridge.
A few years later, Boychuk and the Lethbridge Hurricanes battled the Spokane Chiefs in the WHL playoffs when Peters was the Chiefs coach.
Canes center Riley Nash, from Consort, and Brody Sutter of Viking are Alberta natives. Goalie Cam Ward was raised in Sherwood Park outside Edmonton.
Boychuk said he participated in the Hockey Alberta Golf Classic in July. He noted Peters donated one prize pack that included flights to Raleigh and tickets to a Canes game.
Peters and Boychuk have another shared experience – attending the annual Calgary Stampede.
“Has the biggest rodeo in the world,” Boychuk said.
Added Peters: “That’s a rite of passage, a ritual.”
Peters said he never attempted any rodeo events but said bull-riding might have interested him.
“It would be a lot of fun and it’d be over quick, as long as you don’t get hurt,” he said.