In the trenches

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

The observation is one most are making mentally.

Wojtek Wolski says it out loud: "Cheeser, you look like you should be going to a dance club."

It's two days before Halloween and an annual tradition is unfolding in the cafeteria at Turner Fenton Secondary School in Brampton. With the bass turned high, music blares from the speakers. The large room begins to fill with students, some clad in costumes. But they have nothing on the Brampton Battalion gathering near the back of the cafeteria.

The majority of Battalion players still in high school attend Turner Fenton, a few hundred yards up Kennedy Rd. from the Brampton Centre for Sports and Entertainment. It's an honoured tradition with the Battalion -- even though the club is in only its seventh year in the Ontario Hockey League -- that rookies dress up in women's clothing on or near Halloween and become the focal point of a school assembly. While the 10 rookies who are clad in everything from spandex shirts to short shorts to high heels and makeup might not readily agree, it's a bonding experience the veterans eat up.

Wolski's comment is directed at freshman goaltender Daren Machesney, who is wearing pumps, tight leather pants, a black blouse with a pink floral print, a pearl necklace and enough makeup to make Christina Aguilera do a double-take.

Others laugh. Machesney manages a small smile.

Later, with the "women" on stage, forward Jason Cassidy entices a large roar from the crowd when he jumps into the arms of teammate Aaron Snow. Judging by the reaction of their fellow students, one would think the Battalion just scored a winning goal.

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Becoming a member of an Ontario Hockey League team takes more than just possessing raw talent. There's not only pressure to perform well on the ice, but players -- 480 on 20 teams in Ontario, Michigan and one in Pennsylvania -- also are under scrutiny in the towns they play in. There are NHL clubs to impress, grades to achieve in school and teammates who count on one guy as much as the next.

The fact that millions of dollars change hands when OHL teams are sold is enough to indicate the overall business of owning a major junior organization is not a dog and pony show. For the players, slogging through hockey and school, while, in many cases, living away from home at the height of their teenage years, is a formidable challenge. It's a level of hockey at which dreams can be formed or dashed. The Toronto Sun recently spent six days with the Brampton Battalion, shadowing the players at the rink and and away from it, and witnessing just what it takes to be a player in the OHL.

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The Battalion has lost its past three games. Coach Stan Butler --having given his players a Monday free of practice, as is the case nearly every week -- is ready to start preparing for the next games, at St. Michael's on Friday night, in Windsor on Saturday afternoon and at home to Plymouth on Sunday.

A former educator who spent 15 years in the Scarborough Board of Education, Butler, 48, is the only director of hockey operations/coach the club has known and is about as meticulous a person you will find. And for good reason: Running a junior hockey club, even if it's just from the hockey side, entails a bit more than drawing up drills for practice and hoping the players apply in games what they have learned in preparation.

Butler's office at the south end of the rink is tidy. He opens a cupboard above his desk and reveals 17 black three-ring binders. Each serves its own purpose, whether it contains practice schedules, billet information, gamesheets or the school activities of each player or whatever else Butler has deemed worthy of filing away.

"We like to call ourselves a development league, but that applies to life, not just hockey," Butler says as assistant coach Kelly Harper sits nearby, meticulously shot-listing video of the St. Michael's Majors, the Battalion's next opponent.

"I understand it is all about winning and losing but I am really proud of the program here."

Butler's teams have not advanced to an OHL final in his years in Brampton, but five players who have worn the army green uniforms have gone on to play at least one game in the NHL. As proud as Butler is of helping Jason Spezza, Raffi Torres, Rostislav Klesla, Brent Burns and Brian Finley reach their ultimate goal, he is as happy when discussing the success of others who didn't make it to the NHL.

Much of that is rooted in emphasizing to the players the importance of not only earning a high school diploma but attending university if their hockey future does not include the professional levels. The reasoning for the emphasis is obvious -- 14 Battalion players have signed professional hockey contracts (and not all at the NHL level) since the team's inception in 1998.

"Other than Brent Burns (who spent one season with Brampton before making a surprise jump to the NHL's Minnesota Wild last season) I can't think of one player who didn't get his high school diploma here," Butler says. "We have to let the players know we are top of (their school activities). It's their life. I feel strongly obligated to make sure they get their diplomas."

As if on cue, hockey administrator Stuart McComish enters Butler's office, clutching the first progress reports from educational consultant Rick Montgomery, a guidance counsellor at Fenton. Butler takes a quick look and notices four players are having trouble, i.e., they're failing some courses.

Butler summons one to his office later in the day, before practice.

"If I get a progress report, and the marks are low, you're going to start to sit out some games," Butler tells the player. "I just want to give you fair warning. You're the only guy with two subjects of concern."

The player says: "Photography is a joke. I should not be failing. English, it's more the reading I am not doing."

Butler: "You have to block off times where you get it done."

The player agrees and leaves the office. On Saturday, four days later and early on the nearly four-hour bus ride to Windsor, the same player has his books in front of him, doing his homework.

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If only the life of a junior hockey player consisted simply of scoring goals, blocking shots and winning faceoffs. Thanks to an aggressive campaign by the OHL during the past 15 years or so, there's a greater emphasis on education. Of course, there are huge pressures that come with trying to balance hockey and school, and it's a task that has no definitive answer that works for everyone.

"It gets hard at times, especially when you have three games in one weekend and you have a test or a mid-term coming up," says captain Ryan Oulahen, who is taking correspondence courses through York University. "I try to do my work before practice starts. You have to find time to study and keep your mind focused. There are other things guys are going to want you to take part in, but you have to be disciplined."

With that in mind, the manner in which the OHL does certain things began to change during the late 1980s. There was a time when school was an afterthought, and whether players actually attended classes was not a concern for teams.

Craig Hartsburg remembers those days well. Hartsburg, recently named coach of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for the second time after leaving his post as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers, played three seasons in the Soo starting in 1975.

"I don't think there is any comparison with the way the league is run now," Hartsburg says. "When I played, basically you were left on your own with school. I graduated from high school, but it's probably more due to my parents (and their insistence that he do so). Certainly there were a lot of guys whom I played with who did not.

"The way everything is now, there are a lot of doors open, and it's not just to a pro career."

The process has not evolved by accident.

"For the past number of years, there has been an evolution," OHL commissioner David Branch says. "Educational consultants are mandatory with all teams, and that has not always been the case. A lot of it is common sense. Practices, for example, are after school (not first thing in the morning). We want to ensure every player leaves with something (whether it's a continuing career in hockey or the foundation for post-secondary education, or both)."

Those Battalion players who are taking post-secondary courses are paid for their books and tuition by the club as long as they pass the courses. For every year they play with Brampton -- and depending on what round the Battalion drafted them in and what educational packages their agents have devised with the club -- they will be paid for books and tuition at university once they leave the organization.

One area the league consciously has tried to improve is the schedule for each team, with the thinking that the less time a player spends on the road, the more he will spend on school work. For example, in a 68-game season that includes stops in such far-flung places as Sault Ste. Marie, Erie, Pa., and Ottawa, the Battalion will stay in a motel for just three nights during 2004-05. There's no doubt centrally located clubs such as the Battalion, Mississauga IceDogs, St. Michael's Majors and Oshawa Generals, among others, have an advantage. Of the 19 other teams in the OHL, just four (the Soo, Ottawa, and the two Michigan centres -- Plymouth and Saginaw) are more than a four-hour bus ride away for the Battalion. To put the Battalion's schedule into clearer perspective, of its 10 games in November, five are on the road. Three are on a Friday night, two on a Saturday evening. One is eight kilometres down the road in Mississauga.

By contrast, the Greyhounds' closest opponent, the Sudbury Wolves, is 3 1/2 hours away; this season, the Hounds will spend 30 nights in motels across the province and often there will be study halls for players on the road. Last season, the Battalion spent $64,600 on travel ($43,000 of which paid for the bus alone); Greyhounds spokesman Gino Cavallo says the Hounds' yearly travel budget runs about $120,000.

In the end, there is not much to stop players, certainly those who play in Brampton, from having at least some success in school. Will all of them achieve as much? Of course not. But the pieces are in place for them to have a chance to succeed.

Never drafted by an NHL club, overager Danny McDonald is being courted by a number of Canadian universities to play hockey next season.

"If something happens to come up, whether it be pro or whatever, I am going to look at everything," McDonald says. "But it looks like university right now. I am not disappointed by that. I would not look at it as a setback in my career.

"I am looking at something business-related (as far as his courses go)."

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It's hard to miss Margaret Snow as she winds her way through the bowels of the Windsor Arena between periods of a game featuring the Battalion and the hometown Spitfires.

The mother of Aaron Snow, she proudly wears her Battalion sweater, complete with his No. 9 and name emblazoned on the back.

As much as it is a challenge for players to juggle the demands of hockey and school, it's another for parents to watch their sons walk out their door to begin their junior careers.

Snow, who turned 16 last May, is the youngest member of the Battalion. A native of Windsor, Snow is an only child. The idea of allowing their son to move 3 1/2 hours away to pursue a hockey dream was difficult for his parents, Margaret and Bill, to swallow.

There are those who will argue that sending 16-year-olds off to other cities, and in some cases another country, to play hockey and live with people they've never met before is plain wrong. But for those who live the life, the view is different.

"It's just that you don't want to let him go, let him leave home," Margaret Snow says. "He is just 16 and he is my only child. I am so used to taking care of him. But he is situated well and he has come this far from playing hockey all those years as a boy. We are so happy for him."

The adjustment hasn't been as strenuous for Aaron Snow, who departed Windsor with a care package of homemade cookies and Halloween candy tucked under his arm. He says goodbye to his girlfriend just moments before the bus pulls out of the arena parking lot.

He is asked the next day whether it's hard to leave behind his girlfriend, whom he has been seeing for just over a year.

"It's not really that tough," Snow says. "I'm still young and so is she. She has her life to live and so do I."

One important factor for the Snows in accepting the move of their son to Brampton is the manner in which the Battalion screens its prospective billets.

Of the 24 players on the Battalion roster, 17 live with billets, and seven live at home.

This year, it was not a huge chore for Butler and his staff to pick new billets -- 11 have been with the team since Day 1. But for newcomers, there are applications, interviews, and walk-throughs of the house ("We want to see that players get their own room," Butler says). If billet hopefuls get past that part of the process, they undergo a criminal check with the Peel Region police.

And, as Butler says, those who open their homes to these teenaged boys aren't in it for the money. Billets are paid $325 a month and receive a pair of tickets to each home game.

For Rob and Mary Ferguson, who are among the Battalion's original billets, there is no better way to entrench themselves in the community.

"I couldn't tell you what we get every month because it is nominal, but it does not matter," says Rob Ferguson, who works for Starbucks Coffee. "Billeting is such a fantastic way to connect with your community and keep you involved with what is going on."

The friendships the Fergusons have formed with each of their players -- Brad Woods, Jonah Leroux, Sebastien Savage and now Oulahen -- are strong today.

"We keep in touch with all of the boys," Rob Ferguson says. "It has been a great experience for us."

Oulahen sees it that way as well. The 19-year-old began living with the Fergusons, who have a 12-year-old daughter, two years ago. Often, Oulahen will help Megan with her homework, among other activities.

"It's my second home," Oulahen, a Newmarket native, says. "Sometimes I joke with my parents that I like living here better than I do at home. It's special to not only have fun on the ice, but also to experience living with another family."

Not every Battalion player has to pack up and leave home every August when training camp begins. Seven members of the team live at home -- Luch Aquino, Kevin Couture and Wolski in Mississauga, Michael Vernace in Toronto, Howie Martin in Hillsburgh, and Brock McPherson and Phil Oreskovic in Brampton.

Oreskovic, a Brampton native, is just the second home-grown product to play for the Battalion (after Mike Looby, now with the Plymouth Whalers). Are there times when Oreskovic wonders what it would be like to live with another family? Sure. But the comforts of his own bed and mom Colleen's daily cooking are too good to pass up.

"I have no complaints about living at home," Oreskovic, a strapping defenceman in his draft year, says. "I get constructive criticisms from my parents and I have people pushing me all the time to do the right things.

"And I can get chicken alfredo, my favourite meal, whenever I want it. My mom is always after me about food and what I am eating. She even pushes me to eat when I am not hungry."

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J.F. Houle doesn't mind this kind of teasing from his teammates. The rookie from Sudbury has just capped three thorough practices by winning the Big Wheel Belt, awarded to the Battalion player who wins the weekly shootout. Houle places the belt, made by teammate Patrick Sweeney, in the top of his locker so everyone can see it.

Biggest moment of your career, J.F.?

"Yeah, definitely," he says with a smile. One of the finalists was Wolski, who won the belt a week earlier.

"You're last week's news," McComish says to Wolski from the bench.

"I'll forget you when I make it, don't worry," a laughing Wolski, a first-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche last June, fires back at McComish.

The camaraderie among Battalion players is evident throughout the week, and no wonder. If they're not at the rink together, chances are good they will be doing things with one another in their spare time. Tuesday night, without fail, is movie night; Wednesday nights usually are spent at one of the Battalion's homes playing cards.

Players scatter for lunch after one morning's 10 o'clock club. The 10 o'clock club is held on practice days, and it's a chance for players who don't have school commitments to go to the rink and have on-ice instruction with Harper or off-ice workouts with trainer Brad Handley. Later, players will be back for practice, which usually begins at 3:30 p.m.

There are province-wide literacy tests this week so regular classes at high school are not in session. On this day, rookies Luch Aquino, Luke Lynes and Snow decide to have lunch at a nearby Denny's. Wolski is a latecomer to lunch after a lengthy meeting with Butler and Harper. Immediately after sitting down, he reaches across the table, lifts a plate of pancakes from Aquino and digs in. The players talk about the previous night's movie -- Shark Tale -- and then Wolski asks those at the table whether "you've seen Fahrenheit 9/11."

Thus begins a conversation in which Lynes, a native of Ellicott City, Md., expresses hope that George W. Bush will be re-elected as U.S. president; Aquino is adamant in his belief that that's the worst thing that can happen. It's a revealing conversation, and the idea that the attention spans of teenaged boys, at least these ones, is next to nil proves to be incorrect.

"There's a perception out there of kids in this league and it's wrong," Butler says. "They're mature beyond their years because many of them leave home in their early years."

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Machesney looks up from his pre-practice stretching one day and says: "That's one thing about being an OHL rookie. You can be fined for just about anything."

By the end of the season, the Battalion players will be sitting on a nice little treasure chest. They closed the 2003-04 season with $2,200 in their own account. Half went to their season-ending team party, and half was donated to Brampton minor hockey. Along the way, they also used the money to pay for Christmas presents for the team's staff.

Sweeney threatens to fine rookie John de Gray simply because the latter had the audacity to change the channel on one of the four televisions in the dressing room. Brock McPherson rings up the rookies who did not wear makeup for the Halloween assembly at $2 each.

And it's not just through fines that players keep tabs on themselves. Nightly curfew is 11 p.m., and Butler has split the team into three parts. It's the responsibility of Oulahen, Wolski and McPherson to call each player on his list each night and then report to Harper. The assistant coach then makes a few cold calls, double-checking that players are at home when they should be. If a player breaks curfew, both he and the group captain are fined $50.

It's wise to toe the line wherever possible. Although some will one day sign multimillion dollar contracts in the NHL, they get peanuts to play in the OHL. Overagers are paid $150 a week, and others are paid a mere $50 a week.

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McPherson has a dream and he decides to share it with those within earshot in the dressing room following a tough practice: "I wish my equipment was a big suit with a zipper and I could just take it off at once," the second-year Battalion forward says. "I hate getting undressed."

Sure enough, as Harper enters the main room a few moments later to go through some video with the players, McPherson is the only player still completely dressed in his equipment.

Three vigorous practices in three days have the Battalion toasted late on a Thursday afternoon. But to a person, they would not have it any other way. With three games in approximately 45 hours starting the next day, they realize the hard work they have just finished will help get them through.

"A lot of times other teams come in on Sunday afternoon for their third game of the weekend and that's where this can pay off," Tyler Harrison, the younger brother of former Battalion and Maple Leafs prospect Jay Harrison, says. "If we can outlast them, this is where it starts."

During one exercise on stationary bikes, where players ride hard for 30 seconds a minute for 15 minutes and are left gasping for air, it's what Harper reminds them of when he shouts words of encouragement: "It's going to pay off on Sunday, boys! It's going to pay off in the third period on Sunday!"


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