Across the top of the lockers in the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room are the words: "To you from falling hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high."
David Wilkie and Gerry Fleming once carried that torch as teammates in Montreal. They carry it still today - Wilkie as the new coach of the Augusta Lynx and Fleming with the Florida Everblades - as the two close friends and former Canadiens go head to head when the teams meet tonight and Saturday at TECO Arena.
"The philosophy in Montreal is that they try to mold every player in the belief that nobody is bigger than the team, no matter how great the player," said Wilkie, who took over as coach Nov. 8. "The torch is passed to different players through the years, but the team is always No. 1."
Wilkie was a No. 1 draft pick by the Canadiens in 1992 and began his pro career in 1994 with Montreal's top farm club in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in the American Hockey League.
Fleming, who was one of the most feared enforcers in the AHL, took a liking to Wilkie, a defenseman, and helped him learn the ropes of pro hockey.
"It was the older guy taking the younger guy under his wing," said Wilkie who, at 28, is seven years Fleming's junior. "He's one of my best friends. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Gerry. He's a super intelligent guy and a guy who commands the respect of his players as a coach."
They were teammates for three seasons in Fredericton and were together briefly in Montreal. Wilkie played 91 of his 167 NHL games with the Canadiens. Fleming appeared in 11 games with the Canadiens and was finishing his career in the minors by the time Wilkie established himself as an NHL regular.
"I always liked the guys who really wanted to make themselves better and wanted to take the steps necessary," Fleming said. "That's the way David has always been. He wanted to be the best player. He wants to be the best person. And I know he wants to be the best coach."
As coaches, both Wilkie and Fleming can be described as demanding, yet fair. They stress accountability and expect their players to work as hard as they do.
Fleming and Wilkie say their similar coaching styles are no coincidence, considering where they came from.
"From the minute you arrive in Montreal, they do whatever it takes to get you what you need to become the best player you can become," Fleming said. "In return, they ask that you give all of yourself. The great teams in sports like the Celtics and Yankees and Canadiens all have that belief. And when you're a part of something like that, you take those beliefs with you. I know I have, and I think David feels the same."
Wilkie already faced Fleming in the season-opening games against Florida while Jim Burton was serving his league suspension. But he's officially the Lynx coach now, and says he looks forward to the matchup.
"It's exciting, going against Gerry and coaching my first games on the road," Wilkie said. "I want to make sure to do everything I can to put our team in a position to win two hockey games."
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.
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