In a sense, Dave Tippett has been preparing to be the head coach of the Dallas Stars since he was a kid in the southeastern Saskatchewan town of Moosomin.
He'd be at the rink early in the morning and didn't leave until darkness blanketed the Canadian prairie. Even then, hockey was everything to him. The rest was what you did until you could play hockey again.
"I've probably been that way since I was 3 years old," he said. "In Canada, we call it a rink rat. That's what most coaches are, rink rats."
Never did he leave a rink without learning something, whether junior hockey, the University of North Dakota or the NHL, where he was a fine defensive forward for 11 seasons with the Hartford Whalers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.
As an assistant to King Coach Andy Murray for three seasons, the diligent checker had to become creative and devise power-play strategy. He did it so well, the post-Rob Blake Kings had the NHL's most potent power play last season, up from 24th before he arrived.
"Before I came to L.A., I wouldn't have considered myself a power-play guru," said Tippett, who signed a three-year contract with the Stars in May. "The way Andy set up the staff, I was the offensive, power-play guy and Mark [Hardy] was the penalty-killing guy. It was great for us because we got a lot of responsibility."
The ultimate responsibility is now his, and he carries it as if born to it.
Tippett is quick to downplay suggestions that the Stars, who missed the playoffs last spring, are destined to go far this season because they have a league-leading 31 points after defeating the Mighty Ducks, 4-0, Friday at the Arrowhead Pond. "Game 22 is not going to decide the division, I guarantee you," he said.
No, but he has invigorated a team numbed by too many paint-blistering tirades by his predecessor, Ken Hitchcock, who would tell players which direction to point their skates in the neutral zone but couldn't communicate on a personal level.
"Sometimes I think Hitch really didn't understand that players make mistakes," defenseman Derian Hatcher said. "Tip understands. He played the game and he relates to players and knows what they go through."
Hitchcock, who led the Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999 with a dogged devotion to defense, surely would have raged Wednesday after the team squandered a 2-0 lead en route to a 2-2 tie at Phoenix. Tippett calmly told players that one point was better than nothing and they'd make up for it at Anaheim and against the Kings tonight at Staples Center.
"He knows there's enough experience and leadership in the room that if he's not saying something, someone else is," defenseman Richard Matvichuk said. "The guys we have here have won championships. They know when to say something.
"With a new coach and some new personnel, this has been a fresh start for all of us. That's what the organization needed.... There's no separation between the coaching staff and players. We've really jelled as a team."
He is calm by nature, not an attitude he assumed to become the anti-Hitchcock.
"Tip's a real smart hockey mind, and his people skills are real good," Murray said after chatting with him Friday morning. "Dallas is just a great fit for Dave, and I told him that when he looked at the job."
Above all, he's always prepared, the hallmark of a guy who made it on smarts and effort rather than sheer talent.
When he interviewed with Stars' General Manager Doug Armstrong, he brought a 20-page outline of his philosophy and his evaluation of the Stars.
Such attention to detail helped Tippett, who had led Houston of the International Hockey League to the 1999 Turner Cup championship, beat out Hitchcock -- who had reapplied for the job -- and former NHL coaches Ted Nolan, Pat Burns and Terry Murray.
It is a job any coach would covet. He has superb resources in center Mike Modano, $45-million free agent winger Bill Guerin and a deep defense led by Matvichuk, Hatcher, Sergei Zubov and former King Philippe Boucher. And he has kept them happy and productive while getting the most from a strong supporting cast.
Modano, alternately Hitchcock's pet and whipping boy, likes Tippett's style.
"He's very quiet as a guy. He's really enjoying this opportunity, and we as players were welcoming to the overall change," said Modano, one of the NHL's top scorers with eight goals and 25 points. "Dave has played the game and he understands certain situations.... He's left a lot up to us as far as players and our captains to try to prepare ourselves and get the team ready. He adds his points as far as what we need to focus on. Our meetings are maybe five, not even 10 minutes long. I think that allows us more time to prepare ourselves."
Tippett credited Murray and the Kings for propelling him up the career ladder.
"I have a great deal of respect for the Kings' organization. Everything they do is first class," he said. "It's an honor for me to come back here and say I was part of that."
The wish Tippett cherished for so long has come true, but wishes have a way of falling short of expectations. He's not likely to let that happen.
"I wanted to be a player, first. But after, the game intrigued me and from there, you just let yourself go," he said. "As a young player I was never drafted or anything. One thing I told myself was I was going to play at the highest level that I can until I don't want to play or somebody tells me I can't play. That's what I did. I decided I didn't want to play any more and started to coach. I said, 'I'm going to do this. I think I can do it well and I'm going to keep doing it until I see where it takes me.' "