Nick Suzuki of the Owen Sound Attack, right, skates in on Thomas Harley of the Mississauga Steelheads looks on in Ontario Hockey League action at the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre on Saturday, September 30, 2017 in Owen Sound, Ont. (Postmedia Network)
The only thing that hasn’t changed in junior hockey over the years is the role of the head coach.
It’s still the most important job in the organization.
So much depends on being able to stabilize all the moving parts and turn a group of players into a functioning — and winning — program.
This is one of the most interesting OHL seasons because there are nine new coaches in the 20-team league, plus the Oshawa situation, where 27-year-old Greg Nemisz and recently retired Nathan McIver are holding the reins while Bob Jones recovers from an undisclosed illness at home in Windsor.
The Generals are holding their own in his absence.
“It’s not any more stressful than normal coaching is, right,” Nemisz, the two-time Memorial Cup champ with Windsor, said recently. “There are a lot of emotions in coaching, but Nathan (who played for Jones with the old Toronto St. Michael’s Majors) and I were ready for it. We knew going into the season this was going to be happening. We’re just hoping Bob can make a full recovery and join us when he’s ready.”
They speak to Jones often, usually about hockey, but clearly, it takes a back seat to Jones’ health.
“Life is a lot more important,” said Nemisz, the former Flames first-rounder whose pro career was derailed by injuries. “Everyone’s their own coach. You can’t be someone you’re not. I just try to be pretty genuine with our guys. I’ve obviously picked up a lot of stuff from a lot of great coaches I’ve had. I still talk to DJ (Smith, ex-Gennies boss and now Maple Leafs assistant) here and there, and he’s a great resource for me.”
No one is better at pumping out NHL head coaches than the Spitfires organization. Bob Boughner is in his first year running the Panthers, while Peter DeBoer (Sharks), Joel Quenneville (Blackhawks) and Claude Julien (Canadiens) are all former Windsor players.
Is there something in the water in the Detroit River?
“Coincidence,” Nemisz said with a grin.
Here’s a quick look at how the other coaches in new positions are faring:
Jay Varady, KINGSTON: If they were handing out coach of the year honours for three weeks of the season, this guy would get it. Kris Knoblauch and Ryan McGill proved you can hire bench bosses from the Western league unfamiliar with the players and still win. Varady, who previously ran Sioux City in the USHL and a pro team in France, shows it matters most what you do when given the chance. He sought to boost the team’s scoring and it’s working.
Trevor Letowski, WINDSOR. He has Mikey DiPietro in net, Sean Day back on the blue line and a penalty killing unit that started hot. This was one of the most comfortable of all new hires, since Letowski was already on the bench. If he gets the Spits into the playoffs, it’s a job well done.
Billy Burke, NIAGARA. Like Letowski, Burke was already part of the IceDogs’ fabric, serving as an assistant on his dad’s team with, first, Marty Williamson, then, last year, David Bell. Everyone knew Niagara was going to be better than last season. It’s Burke’s job to stay on the path to future contention — and he’s off to a nice start.
Andre Tourigny, OTTAWA: Take away the 11-2 opening drubbing in Barrie and the 67’s have been solid under their ex-Quebec league coach. If they knock off North Bay and Sudbury their next two games, they’ll be right up there with Kingston.
Chris Hartsburg, ERIE: He once was an assistant along with Varady in Everett of the Western league, under his dad Craig. The Otters already suffered through a five-game skid and that might not be the last one. But if he can finish ahead of London, everyone’s happy.
Todd Gill, OWEN SOUND: The ex-Leafs defender has little wiggle room. It’s win or else in Attack land this year. Their first big test against Kitchener Monday, they came up small, so there’s plenty of work to do.
George Burnett, GUELPH: He stepped aside from the ice to run Flint last year. Now, the career coach is back in business with the club he brought to the Memorial Cup final in 1998. The Storm are riding high in the special teams department and look to be gathering as a force again under Burnett’s steady hand.
Cory Stillman, SUDBURY: He’s been given a clean slate and made it clear right out of the gate he wants change in the club’s work ethic. He’s trying to establish a pro culture in the Nickel City. So far, the results have not been kind.
Troy Smith, SAGINAW: Everyone who knows Smith is happy he’s back in the league again. But he’s not going to be satisfied with simply working. The Spirit have some upside and after Flint’s recent success, they need to show, at the least, they’re the best OHL team in Michigan.
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PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Centre, Owen Sound Attack
Born: Aug. 10, 1999
Weight: 183 pounds.
Finding the groove: The Golden Knights are having a heck of a week. One of their prized first-rounders racked up seven points in two games, including three goals, against Sarnia and Windsor. Expect this to continue. Suzuki is a lot of people’s pick to win the OHL scoring title this season.
Story so far: He’s still outscoring his brother Ryan, Barrie’s first-overall pick in 2017. Nick’s statistics over his first two years have compared favourably to the Attack’s brightest star forwards, Joey Hishon and Bobby Ryan. His 45 goals last year as a sophomore suggest there’s 50 in his stick this go-round. Owen Sound is expected to be a top contender for the league title and this is the guy who has to lead them there.
The numbers: 0 PIMs. The Canadian Hockey League’s reigning most sportsmanlike player is right on track with his fair play style. He has a grand total of 14 penalty minutes in 134 OHL regular-season games.
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Mississauga at Sarnia, Friday at 7:05 p.m.
It looks like the Soo’s stiff West Division test will come from the Sting, who vowed to challenge for top spot despite an inexperienced blue line. That’s a nice bounce back for Sarnia, who lost three eligible players to the NHL last season. If they keep scoring the way they are, they’ll stick around in the hunt for a while. The Steelheads just need to get rolling and it would be a nice start to knock off a hot team.
ROAD TO DALLAS ’18
There have been a lot of NHL scouts already charting early London games to get a look at Knights defenceman and ‘A’ level prospect Evan Bouchard. That’s because, without Victor Mete, he’s become the team’s No. 1 blue-liner and drawing the top scorers on the other team. He’s doing a good job scoring himself, leading London with seven points. It hasn’t helped them win much, though.
The Soo Greyhounds are 4-0-1 on the road this season. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Hounds had the most road points (53) of any OHL team last year, too. In fact, their road record the past few years has been better than their home mark. They ride the bus more than any other team. “We’re used to it,” power forward Boris Katchouk said. And they’re real good at it, too.
COLD AS ICE
The London Knights are 0-3 at Budweiser Gardens and have been outscored 14-3 on home ice by Windsor, Kingston and the Sault so far. They’ve got the Spits and Owen Sound up next this week so it’s not like things will get any easier.
4 — The number of power play goals Ben Jones has scored in seven games for Niagara so far this season. The 18-year-old Golden Knights draft pick had previously buried three with the man advantage in his first two seasons combined. The IceDogs have a terrific 10 power-play goals to date, a big part of their quick start.
HE SAID IT . . .
“I challenged our guys on our discipline. Our goal was four penalties or less and we got three. To a man everyone seemed pretty focused and keen to play the right way.”
— Petes coach Jody Hull to the Peterborough Examiner Monday after knocking off the North Bay Battalion the right way. If you can give up four or fewer power plays in a game during the chaotic first month of the OHL season, you’re in good shape for a win.