Junior hockey and the way it operates and carries on can be cyclical, trendy and copycat.
And while some may say or feel that junior hockey is a young man’s game when it comes to the art of coaching, that is simply not the case.
For example, as the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League both boast exceptional coaches who are in their 30s and 40s, so too do they feature high end bench bosses who are in their 50s and 60s.
In other words, when it comes to the NOJHL and OHL as two junior hockey leagues of illustration, a good coach is a good coach, regardless of age.
Let us look at the NOJHL first.
While the junior A league boasts two very good young coaches in 34-year old Kyle Brick of the Blind River Beavers and 35-year old Corey Beer of the Timmins Rock, the NOJHL also has “elder statesmen” who effectively and proficiently are manning benches.
The so-called elders list is led by 65-year old Dan Cuomo, who merely led the Rayside Balfour Canadians to a first place finish in the West Division of the NOJHL in the 2019-2020 season.
And over in Espanola, the Express was driven by 57-year old head master Dave Clancy, who was selected as the NOJHL’s coach of the year for the 2019-2020 season.
Elsewhere, esteemed Soo Eagles head coach Doug Laprade is 51-years old and incoming Soo Thunderbirds bench boss Denny Lambert is a spry 50-year old, who previously was on the bench of the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds for eight years.
Over to the major junior OHL, the list of impressive head coaches who are on the younger side includes 30-year old Eric Wellwood of the Flint Firebirds, 34-year old Paul McFarland of the Kingston Frontenacs, 38-year old Chris Lazary of the Saginaw Spirit, 40-year old Chris Hartsburg of the Erie Otters, 43-year old Trevor Letowski of the Windsor Spitfires and 46-year old Andre Tourigny of the Ottawa 67’s.
But two peerless coaches who really stand out are a pair of oldies but goodies — 58-year old George Burnett of the Guelph Storm and 60-year old Dale Hunter of the London Knights.
In masterful fashion, Burnett coached the underdog Storm to a stunning and improbable OHL championship in 2019.
And at this year’s World Junior Hockey Championships, it was Hunter who showed his coaching excellence by leading Team Canada to a come from behind gold medal achievement.
In short, it can be said — without hesitation — that there is no coach in the OHL who is better than either Burnett or Hunter.
Meanwhile, speaking of older coaches, at the midget hockey level in Sault Ste. Marie has been 66-year old Don Gagnon, who completed his 35th year as a coach in 2019-2020.
A retired steelworker, Gagnon has the distinction of having played at both the OHL (with the Soo Greyhounds) and the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association (with the Lake Superior State Lakers) levels.
And as a mostly volunteer coach, Gagnon has patrolled benches as a coach in the NOJHL, the Great North Midget Hockey League, Sault Major Hockey Association and Michigan Amateur Hockey Association.
While he has mellowed somewhat over the years, Gagnon still has passion and fire for the game as a coach. And he said it’s about changing with the times as the game evolves.
“The game changes but the fundamentals remain the same,” Gagnon told me. “The only difference now is the players seem to be more skilled, therefore you have to give them some room to execute their talents.
“If you have been a career coach for 30 plus years you don’t get stupid over night,” Gagnon reasoned. “As long as the passion and desire is there that’s all it takes … that and watching a lot of video to stay current.”
Well said, Coach.