It can be a high-stakes, high-risk league for players, coaches, owners et al. And there are many within it who make writing about the Ontario Hockey League a positive rite of passage. Some of whom — just to name a few — appear below.
DAVID BRANCH. When you are the most powerful man in junior hockey you will have your share of detractors. It goes with the position of being commissioner of the OHL and president of the Canadian Hockey League. But there is little question that the 69-year old Branch has done much good for the OHL since he took office in 1979. Not only has the OHL grown from 12 to 20 teams under his watch, the league has gained escalating local, regional, national and international media attention. Most importantly, perhaps, Branch has made the game a lot safer for the players as the chief advocate for anti-violence, major reduction in fighting and more focus on mental health. Like him or not, all of us who are involved in hockey at any level and in any way, shape or form should give a resounding round of applause to Branch for what he has stood for and what he has done in the name of player safety. Branch has led the charge to make the OHL, the CHL — and amateur hockey across Canada in general — a much safer place for youngsters to play with his unwavering dedication to rid the game of goons, thugs and on-ice violence.
BORIS KATCHOUK. The flashy forward with speed to burn and a nose for the net has come a long way from the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time kid who played in only 12 games as a 16-year old rookie with the Soo Greyhounds in 2014-2015 and went scoreless before being farmed out to the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. Now a dominant, world-class player as a 19-year old, Katchouk also looms as a potential second-round steal for the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League.
DREW BANNISTER. The under-rated and under-appreciated head coach of the Soo Greyhounds does not draw attention to himself or beat his own drum. Somewhat aloof and somewhat matter-of-fact, the stoic Bannister knows how to coach and knows which buttons to push on which player. A pro job looms for Bannister, who just may become the Hounds most successful coach since the multiple championship days of Ted Nolan.
DARIAN PILON, DRAKE PILON. The 19-year old, twin terrors from Sault Ste. Marie are fan favourites as fearless, free-wheeling forwards with the Sudbury Wolves. Small in stature but big in heart and compete level, the brazen brothers have come a long way over the past few years, moving up from house league midget in their hometown to the Batchewana Attack of the now-defunct Canadian International Hockey League to the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League to the Wolves and the OHL. They are testy and tough and they walk the line — and they don’t cross it as often as they once did — and they are pure examples that you don’t have to be drafted to play and stay in the OHL.
GEORGE BURNETT. As good and honest and solid a guy and as good and honest and solid a coach (and general manager) as there is in the OHL. Has coached and managed with success in the OHL since he ran his first bench as a fresh-faced, blond-haired, 27-year old with the erstwhile Niagara Falls Thunder back in 1989. Ask him a straight question and he will give you a straight answer. Ask him the time of day and he will give it to you. Now in his first season as coach-general manager in Guelph, Burnett has the Storm back in the hunt after two long years in the wilderness.
MICHAEL DIPIETRO. He stole the 2017 Memorial Cup championship for the Windsor Spitfires and is still stealing games this season as the best player on his team and the best goalie in the OHL. How he did not make Team Canada for this edition of the World Junior Hockey Championships smacks of pure politics or stupidity — maybe both — on the part of the decision makers. With another year of OHL eligibility remaining after this one, the National Hockey League draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks is some one to cheer for, plain and simple. He stops the puck. He wins games — and a championship — on his own. Anything else he can do? Please advise.
BOBBY JONES. He has a little bit of Brian Kilrea in him and he has a little bit of Larry Mavety in him and he has a little bit of Wayne Maxner in him — all legendary, retired OHL coaches — and this down-to-earth, career OHLer, as both player and coach, is a credit to character and coaching. Set to resume his duties as bench boss of the Oshawa Generals after a life threatening experience from last summer, Jones — who hails from the Sault Ste. Marie area hamlet of Haviland Bay — is a breath of fresh northern air as a good person who also happens to be a good coach who more than paid his dues as an assistant.
MORGAN FROST. He may be the best forward who did not make this edition of Team Canada. But like the aforementioned DiPietro, the Soo Greyhounds top scorer will get a shot at World Junior leadership and redemption a year from now. Frost fits the the description once given to legendary Peterborough Petes and Montreal Canadiens forward Bob Gainey many years ago: Plays the overall technical game the way it is drawn up to be played.
SOO GREYHOUNDS. Quite clear, no doubt — and with due respect to other contenders such as the Sarnia Sting, Kitchener Rangers and Hamilton Bulldogs — the Greyhounds are the best team in the OHL at the moment. Well coached, well managed, well constructed, the Greyhounds are a team without a noticeable flaw. They are fast, they are furious, they are relentless and they are the odds on favourite to represent the OHL at the 100th edition of the Memorial Cup tournament.
LONDON KNIGHTS. They are the OHL team that the opposition clubs and players love to hate — and be green with envy of. And it is ironic that green is a prominent colour on the London uniforms. At any rate, there is not an OHL franchise that is more scrutinized and scorned — by envious opponents, mostly — than the big green machine that is the London Knights. Opposing teams and their fans claim that the Knights cheat and break rules en route to their status as the OHL’s model franchise. Let’s just say that once a Knight is enough. And if you don’t like the way Knights co-owner and head coach Dale Hunter does business, then too bad.
SAGINAW SPIRIT. It has been written here on multiple occasions over the past several months. That is, meet the future of the OHL. Maturing a year ahead of schedule, Saginaw is in a torrid battle for a top four finish in the tough Western Conference. Several of Saginaw’s best players have considerable OHL eligibility remaining after this season including rookie forward sensation Blade Jenkins. The Spirit is rising. You read it here first and you will continue to read about it here as it happens. General manager Dave Drinkill has followed his well-planned blue print with precision and recycled coach Troy Smith is making good in Saginaw after earlier coaching gigs with the Kitchener Rangers and Hamilton Bulldogs.
FLINT FIREBIRDS. When the 2017-2018 regular season ends, there is a good chance the Firebirds will have missed the playoffs in the Western Conference. But as the future looks bright a few exits along Interstate 75 at Saginaw, the view down the highway at Flint is pretty good as well. Many of the Firebirds better players are their younger ones including a trio of 2000 birth year forwards in Ty Dellandrea, Connor Roberts and Hunter Holmes. 2001 birth year rookie forward Ethan Keppen also looks like a keeper and the Firebirds appear to be in capable hands with general manager Barclay Branch and head coach Ryan Oulahen.
SUDBURY V. NORTH BAY. While this is somewhat of a down season for both teams, the Wolves and Battalion are poised for what could be a thrilling run between the two northern rivals for a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Just 70 miles separate Sudbury and North Bay along the highways and just a few points stand between the Wolves and Battalion in the lower tier of the Eastern Conference standings.
CHRIS SIERZPUTOWSKI. Every OHL town has its super fan. And in most cases, super fans. But this long-time Soo Greyhounds follower and season-ticket holder — dating back to when he was a high school kid in the 1970s — is something special. He has saved, in his own archives, just about every story that has ever been written about the OHL Greyhounds in both the Sault This Week and the Sault Star. And his memory of events related to the Greyhounds is as spacious as his voluminous collection of Sault This Week and Sault Star stories and photos.
PHOTO: OHL commissioner David Branch.