Denny digs the NOJHL gig

Randy Russon
December 3, 2020
Denny Lambert

He has played the game at its highest level, suiting up for more than 500 National Hockey League games in what was an inspiring, improbable rise to the top.

He was later an assistant and head coach of eight seasons in the Ontario Hockey League for the same team that he played for, the Soo Greyhounds.

And now, 50-year old Denny Lambert is combining a career as a police officer with being the first year head coach of the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

Neat and tidy coaching resume aside, that Lambert even made it to the OHL, let alone the NHL, speaks chapters about the dogged determination of the undersized left winger with the heart and soul of a warrior.

He was never drafted into the OHL but made the Greyhounds as an 18-year old training camp invitee and went on to play three full seasons with the Soo, totaling 72 goals, 92 assists, 164 points while racking up 696 penalty minutes in 195 games, playoffs included.

Subsequently, Lambert was never drafted into the NHL either but nonetheless made it there and stayed in the ‘Show’ for 10-plus seasons as a fourth line left winger.

In all, playoffs included, Lambert stuck it out and earned his keep through 504 NHL games, scoring 27 goals, 67 assists, 94 points while piling up a whopping 1,419 penalty minutes.

Lambert divided time in the NHL as a valued fourth-liner with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Ottawa Senators, Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers.

Denny Lambert, as a member of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks

As a coach, Lambert has shown his teaching abilities from learning along the way — and continuing to be a student of the game that he first learned to love as a youngster while growing up in the small town of Wawa, which is located about 120 miles northwest of Sault Ste. Marie.

Known for how well he relates to his players, Lambert spent five full seasons as an assistant coach with the OHL Greyhounds and parts of three more as the head coach. He also spent one winning season as an assistant coach with the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League.

He later coached the Batchewana Attack of the Jr. A, Canadian International Hockey League to a championship in its one and only season of existence. And now, after also helping out within the coaching ranks of the Sault Major Hockey Association, Lambert is on board as the bench boss of the NOJHL Thunderbirds.

He said he is thoroughly enjoying the early going of his debut season as head coach of the Thunderbirds, pointing out a solid, trusting relationship with owner Darren Smyl, general manager Trevor Zachary and assistant coaches Jeremy Stevenson, Micky Sartoretto, Aidan Wright and Gary Roach.

Of note, the 46-year old Stevenson also played at the high levels of the OHL and the NHL as a hard nosed winger with some skill.

Originally a first round OHL draft pick of the Cornwall Royals, good dude Stevenson finished up a productive four year major junior career with the Greyhounds and after being an 11th round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks, overcame the odds to play in 228 NHL games with four different teams.

Meanwhile, back to Lambert, appearing on a recent edition of the Hockey North Show on local radio station Eagle 95.1, the easy-to-talk-to, good guy sat back and discussed his transition from player to coach and much of what he has picked up along the way.

Asked about what coaches had the biggest impact on him as a player, Lambert quickly mentioned former Greyhound coach Ted Nolan as well as his NHL coaches in Ottawa and Nashville, Jacques Martin and Barry Trotz.

“Teddy was like a second father to me … he really impacted my life as a young kid playing for the Greyhounds with a dream of making it to the NHL. Teddy taught me a lot of values and life skills and told me to never, ever give up on my dream of playing in the NHL. I would not have played and stayed with the Greyhounds for three years if it wasn’t for Teddy.

“Jacques believed in me when I played for him in Ottawa. He pushed me and gave me the chance to be a useful fourth line player. He told me that a fourth line player wasn’t just someone who played two or three minutes a game … he told me that he would need me for 10-12 minutes a game and to be prepared to do that. I loved playing for Jacques.

“Barry Trotz in Nashville was not only a great coach but a great guy who also believed in me. He respected my role and and I certainly respected him as a person and a coach,” said Lambert, in summation.

Craig Hartsburg

Lambert also had plenty good to say about former Greyhounds head coach Craig Hartsburg. Lambert was Hartsburg’s assistant over several OHL seasons.

“I learned so much from Craig … from X’s and O’s and how to run a practice and keep the players focused and interested to how to prepare for an opponent to how to properly develop a player. Craig is an amazing coach and someone who was direct and to the point. Craig didn’t mess around, that’s for sure,” Lambert relayed. “I consider myself fortunate to have grown as a coach thanks to Hartsy.

Lambert paid further homage to his coaching favourites.

“A lot of what I do as a coach with the Thunderbirds now is what I picked up by working under Craig Hartsburg with the Greyhounds and coaches who I played for in the OHL and NHL like the guys I mentioned … Teddy Nolan, Jacques Martin and Barry Trotz.

“And let me say just how much I am enjoying coaching in the NOJHL for the Thunderbirds,” Lambert pointed out. “It has been a really good gig through summer ice and training camp and now playing the games.”

Lambert said even with the NOJHL currently playing in a modified form — which includes no deliberate hitting among players relative to COVID-19 and public health rules — he is liking the look and feel of the league and the way the game is being played.

“Yes, it is definitely an adjustment for us as a coaches and for the players for sure,” Lambert said evenly. “But I have been pleasantly surprised how it is gone through the exhibition season and the first four games of the regular season.

“The skill level of the players is certainly being showcased. And I want to commend the officials for doing a good job for calling the game the way they have been … it’s a new experience for them as well.”

Lambert is impressed with the NOJHL, having watched many games over the years before his current role with the Thunderbirds.

“The NOJHL is a really good league and we are looking forward to playing out of our cohort and not just against Blind River. Our games against Blind River have been like playoff competition, having played the Beavers six straight times now, including exhibitions.

“Now, we are looking forward to playing some of the other teams as the season goes on. Meanwhile, we are happy to be playing … it’s been great so far,” smiled Lambert.

He also likes what he has with the locally-laden Thunderbirds.

“As for our team, the Thunderbirds, I like what we have,” Lambert noted. “We have 13 local kids and a young Greyhound draft pick in (defenseman) Connor Toms and other kids who I can see playing at a higher level, like the (National Collegiate Athletic Association.)

“There is no doubt in my mind that we have kids who can play Division 1 hockey in the NCAA,” Lambert said assuredly. “We have kids who can play in the OHL and the NCAA and so do the Blind River Beavers, from what I have seen of them.”

Take it from a guy who was never drafted into the OHL or NHL but stayed and played in both leagues for a long time.

Take it from Denny Lambert.

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