For a first-year junior operation that has experienced growing pains, the Canadian International Hockey League nonetheless has impressive, big-time ties to the National Hockey League.
To be sure, no less than three CIHL coaches played multiple seasons in the NHL.
In fact, Tom McCarthy of the Espanola Rivermen, Denny Lambert of the Batchewana Attack and Krzysztof Oliwa of the Kalkaska Rhinos played a combined 1,474 games in the NHL.
The 54-year old McCarthy made it to the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars as a 19-year old after just two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, where he scored a whopping 116 goals in 125 games with the Oshawa Generals.
A first-round pick to the OHL and then the NHL, McCarthy went on to play in 528 NHL games, scoring 190 goals, 247 assists, 437 points while skating the forward lines for Minnesota and the Boston Bruins.
The 44-year old Lambert was never drafted into the OHL or the NHL. Full of determination, however, Lambert played three seasons in the OHL and after three more years at the minor-pro level, he made it to the NHL and toughed it out for 504 games as a journeyman left winger. Lambert played for four NHL teams — Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Ottawa Senators, Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers — and scored 27 goals, 67 assists, 94 points while racking up 1,419 minutes in penalties.
The 41-year Oliwa, who was born and raised in Poland, spent four seasons in the minors before making it to the NHL with the New Jersey Devils, who had drafted him in the third round. A feared enforcer with a devastating knockout punch, the 6-foot-5 left winger played in 442 NHL games for New Jersey — where he won a Stanley Cup in 2000 — the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames. Nicknamed the “Polish Hammer”, Oliwa had 19 goals, 28 assists, 47 points while piling up 1,494 minutes in penalties in those 442 NHL games.
Besides having played the game at the highest level, all three played for distinguished coaches and took in a lot what they learned from them.
McCarthy played for the gentlemanly Bill White in the OHL and the crusty Glen Sonmor in the NHL. Lambert had the fortune to play for Ted Nolan in the OHL and Jacques Martin, Barry Trotz and Bryan Murray while in the NHL. Lambert was also an assistant coach in the OHL under Craig Hartsburg before becoming a head coach himself. Oliwa, meanwhile skated for legendary coach Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey and future Stanley Cup champion Darryl Sutter while in Calgary.
As it is a major coup for the fledgling CIHL to have landed three coaches who played the game at the highest level — and played it for a long time — it also says a lot about the down-to-earth character and passion that McCarthy, Lambert and Oliwa have for the sport as they teach what they have learned and pass on life skills to junior-aged hockey players while riding buses with them and spending night after night in the small, cold rinks of northern Ontario and Michigan.
PHOTO: Erstwhile NHL enforcer Krzysztof Oliwa, while with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Oliwa now uses his hands to guide the Kalkaska Rhinos of the CIHL.