Denny Lambert skated in the Ontario Hockey League for three seasons before eventually making it to the National Hockey League where he toughed it out for more than 500 games as a battling left winger. But the 53-year old Lambert, who recently stepped in to take over as head coach of the AAA Under 18 Soo Jr. Greyhounds, says it was his time with the program as a player in the Great North Under 18 Hockey League that went a long way to shape him for what was ahead.
Appearing on a recent edition of the Hockey North Show Podcast, Lambert recalled his young teenage years when he ventured 120 miles from home to try to make minor hockey teams in Sault Ste. Marie.
“I am from Wawa and twice I came here to Sault Ste. Marie to try out for the bantam team … and both times I got cut,” Lambert relayed. “But I kept trying and I eventually made the Soo Legion midget team when (coach) Donny Kurylo gave me a chance to prove myself.
“And not only did I go from getting cut (from the bantam team) to making the Soo Legion team (of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League) but the late Donny Kurylo made me his captain. To this day, I have so much respect for Donny Kurylo and the impact that he had on me. He helped me not only in hockey but in life and without Donny Kurylo, I would never have made to where I went to be, first to to the OHL and then to the NHL,” Lambert noted, with emphasis.
Lambert added that is why playing for Sault Ste. Marie’s under 18 team back during the 1987-1988 season to now being the head coach of the program 36 years later in 2023 “is such an honour. That is why, when the opportunity recently came up to take over as coach of the U18 team, it is something that I knew I really wanted to do. So, I talked it over with my wife. I wanted to be sure I could take on the responsibility with already having a full-time job (as a First Nations police constable.)
“Hockey has always been my passion and to have this opportunity to be able to coach the U18 team locally and try to develop the kids and hopefully help them move on to higher levels is a responsibility that I do not take lightly,” Lambert continued.
As for the Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North U18 HL, Lambert said he is still getting to know the players. He had a few practices as the head coach before his first two games with the Jr. Greyhounds, which resulted in three points from a 5-4 overtime loss and a 7-0 victory over the Timmins Majors.
Lambert is putting the systems in place and the style of play that the Jr. Greyhounds will play as the team continues to practice and prepare for the lengthy season that still lies ahead.
“The team is actually better than I thought it was,” Lambert noted, while acknowledging the younger and older players and the seasoned goal-tending duo of A.J. Borrelli and Nick Marson.
“I like their focus,” Lambert said of Borrelli and Marson, local lads who left home to play for Sudbury teams in the Great North last season. “They both move well in the net and they are both competitive and committed. They are leaders in the net and leaders in the dressing room. Goalies can be leaders, too. And they both have good practice habits.”
As for the Jr. Greyhounds as a team in general, Lambert said his main focus is “that they learn to play the game the right way. Like I said, the group is better than I initially thought. We can accomplish a lot this season if we play the the game the right way, practice hard and pay attention to details.”
There is still a lot of hockey left to be played for the U18 Jr. Greyhounds this season. There is the regular season slate, the league championship playoff tournament as well as provincial play downs that are slated for Sault Ste. Marie.
LAMBERT AND HIS STAFF
With Denny Lambert on the new look staff of the Jr. Greyhounds are assistant coaches Jeff Toms, Jeremy Stevenson, Keegan Stevenson and Ty Zachary with added support from goalie coach Ryan Cook, trainer Dr. Kevin Caruso and equipment manager Louie Cuglietta.
The winds of change altered the course of the Jr. Greyhounds just three games into the ’23-’24 Great North U18 HL regular season when head coach Sean Gagnon was suspended by the Northern Ontario Hockey Association pending an investigation relative to some written complaints from team members.
The suspension ultimately resulted in the Sault Major Hockey Association turning to the 53-year-old Lambert to take the head coaching reins from Gagnon. Lambert quickly brought familiar sidekick Trevor Zachary on board as general manager. And then came the finalizing of the key assistant coach positions under Lambert with his handpicked hiring of Zachary’s 21-year-old son Ty, the father-son Stevenson duo of 49-year-old Jeremy and 22-year-old Keegan as well as the 49-year old Toms, who is the team’s skills and development coach.
To sure, there are varying forms of highest and high level experience among the group. And besides their respective hockey backgrounds, Lambert, Toms, the Stevensons and Zachary are all known as individuals of good character.
Never drafted into the OHL or the NHL, Lambert nonetheless made it to both levels as a relentless forward with a never-quit attitude. A hard-nosed, rugged left-winger during his playing days, Lambert skated for the Soo Greyhounds from 1988 to 1991 and posted 65 goals, 83 assists, 148 points over three full seasons in the OHL. Then, regular season and playoffs included, Lambert played in more than 500 NHL games with four different teams.
Following his playing career, Lambert coached the Soo Greyhounds for parts of eight OHL seasons, including three as the head coach. As an assistant with the OHL Hounds, Lambert learned the coaching side of the game from world class bench boss Craig Hartsburg. Lambert has since coached the Soo Thunderbirds of the NOJHL and has the added experience as the northern scout for the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL.
As for Toms, as a hulking left winger, he played three full seasons in the OHL with the Greyhounds after being a 13th-round draft pick. A classic overachiever, Toms was a member of the Greyhounds 1993 Memorial Cup championship team before ending his OHL career in superb style during the 1993-1994 season with 52 goals, 45 assists, 97 points.
He then became a ninth-round draft pick to the NHL and went on to play in more than 235 games in the ‘Show’ before embarking on an eight year pro career in the Swiss elite league. His determination showed further when, after retiring from pro hockey at age 36, Toms took all the courses needed to become a fire fighter and is now employed by the Sault Ste. Marie Fire Department.
Over to Jeremy Stevenson, his hockey playing career ended several years ago at age 34. But now, at 49 years of age and at his playing size and weight of 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Stevenson still looks fit and trim enough to be patrolling the left wing.
A first round pick of the Cornwall Royals in 1990 who would finish his OHL career with the Soo Greyhounds, Stevenson defied the odds to play in 228 NHL games after being an 11th round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 1994. Now working in law enforcement in Sault Ste. Marie, Stevenson would play in 228 NHL games, playoffs included, and total 43 points from 19 goals, 24 assists while racking up 471 minutes in penalties as a fibrous, physical, fearless forward.
Stevenson’s OHL career was also noteworthy, going from being a first round pick by Cornwall from the Elliot Lake midgets in 1990 to being traded to the Soo during the 1993-1994 campaign and scoring 18 goals, 19 assists, 37 points in 48 regular season games while piling up 183 minutes in penalties for coach Ted Nolan’s Greyhounds.
Meanwhile, his son, Keegan Stevenson, now works alongside his dad at the young age of 22 — he turns 23 next month — after a notable playing career as an effective forward that had him move up from the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League to the Guelph Storm of the OHL to Acadia University.
At age 21, Ty Zachary’s hockey resume includes time spent as a hard-working forward with the NOJHL Thunderbirds and the Sault College Cougars of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
As for Trevor Zachary, he was the GM for the NOJHL’s Soo Thunderbirds for four successful years beginning in 2017.