Catch You on the Rebound - Tom Keca: Fort McMurray Oil Barons Head Coach and General Manager
Don’t be surprised one day if you see Tom Keca driving the Zamboni out onto the ice at the Casman Centre.
He has done everything else for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons; player, assistant coach and current head coach and general manager.
Not bad for a Fort McMurray kid, who moved here 43 years ago at the age of two from Regina, Saskatchewan.
The son of immigrants from Yugoslavia, Wally and Slavenka Keca, and a big brother to sister Sasha, he learned his skills within the Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association ranks.
Like thousands of other local hockey players past-present-future, from Initiation to Midget, his dream was “to play one day for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.”
But first, a new dream would enter the horizon.
“When we were kids we would go to Yugoslavia and later Croatia (which had gained its independence from the dissolved Yugoslavia in 1991) for summer vacations as my parents wanted to expose us to the culture,” recalls Keca, who can speak fluent Croatian.
“One summer I did not come back!”
He elaborates, “I had graduated from high school (Westwood Community High School, where he had dabbled and dribbled on the Trojans basketball team) and while on summer vacation there, I met a coach who convinced me to stay and play (Junior hockey for HK Zagred).
“I knew that I would never make the NHL (National Hockey League) but here I was, an 18-year-old kid, playing hockey and travelling all across Europe. I was a Canadian kid that played hockey, they liked that. Remember, this was Yugoslavia back then. They were thrilled to have me.
“It was an education that I could have never received from any book. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
A year-and-a-half later, he achieved his goal that had been set in motion as a youngster, returning home to suit up for the Oil Barons.
He would later seek out a new education, packing his bags and heading south to Lethbridge, where as a student/athlete he played university hockey for the Pronghorns for four years.
With various degrees earned, the Academic All-Canadian Honor Roll recipient returned to teach at Dr. K.A. Clarke.
Such was his passion and dedication, that he was awarded the prestigious Edwin Parr Award for the Outstanding First Year Teacher in the province of Alberta.
His journey since, has included coaching stints with the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) Lloydminster Bobcats, driving instructor for Wally & Company Driving School and heading up the Father Mercredi Hockey Academy.
He had been an assistant coach with the Oil Barons for several years with a brief hiatus during Curtis Hunt’s cup of coffee with chalkboard and whistle.
In Keca’s first year (2015-2016) as Oil Barons head coach, the franchise won only 10 games in the 60-game schedule.
Honour for least wins in team history was nine in 1984-1985.
This year the Oil Barons skated to 43 victories which was tops in the eight-team Viterra AJHL North and second-best in the 16-team AJHL to the Brooks Bandits 49 wins.
Naturally, Keca was named AJHL Coach of the Year.
“The biggest thing was the leadership,” said Keca, of the turnaround. “We had guys like Brandon Ralph, a local 20 year -old with WHO experience and he understood what it means to be part of the organization. We had everyone buy in. Not just one or two guys but everybody.”
Of his own role: “I understand the importance of this team and what it means to the community. I do not take it lightly,” said Keca, who makes sure to find time to be with wife Erin and their children Maya, 13; Max, 11 and Carter aged nine.
“I look at it as an Honour. You want to give back to a community that has given back so much to not only me and my family but my parents.”
So, don’t be surprised one day if you are watching an Oil Barons game and someone shouts out, “Hey isn’t that Tom Keca driving the Zamboni?”
At the time of this deadline, Oil Barons were preparing for the playoffs.
Catch you on the rebound!