A room with a view

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:02 PM ET

Rare are the times Stan Butler will enter his team's dressing room between periods and throw around individual compliments or criticism.

But on this occasion, the director of hockey operations/ coach of the Brampton Battalion can't help himself.

"Ryan, great job at the end, that was good," Butler says to the room full of players but to captain Ryan Oulahen specifically. "We have to make them pay."

Minutes earlier, during the final seconds of the first period of an eventual 3-1 victory against the St. Michael's Majors at the antiquated St. Michael's Arena, Oulahen received a double-minor for checking from behind when he hit the Majors' Cal Clutterbuck. Butler was not condoning the hit itself; rather, that Oulahen came to the aid of teammate Phil Oreskovic, who himself had been checked from behind (and much harder) into the boards by Clutterbuck. Earlier on the same shift, Oulahen scored what proved to be the winning goal. In fact, in each of the three games that The Toronto Sun shadowed the Battalion, Oulahen -- who is the conscience of the team among the players -- scored the winning goal.

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For the most part, thanks mostly to its centrally located home in Ontario, the Battalion is not adversely affected by travel. On this weekend, however, there is one of those scheduling quirks that every team has to endure at some point during the season. The Battalion will play three games in about 45 hours, beginning at St. Mike's on Friday night at 7:30 p.m., one in Windsor on Saturday at 2 p.m., and another on Sunday afternoon at home versus the Plymouth Whalers.

A match at St. Mike's on a Friday night is nothing out of the ordinary, and neither is the 75 minutes that it takes to get to Bathurst and St. Clair in Toronto from Highway 410 and Derry in Brampton (via Highway 401, Allen Road and Lawrence) during Friday rush hour. But the requirement of being on the bus by 7:45 the next morning after a game the night before is met with some disbelief from the players. Yet the team bus behind the Brampton Centre for Sports and Entertainment is where the Battalion players find themselves about nine hours after they departed it upon return from St. Mike's.

The majority of players had their alarm clocks set for 6:30. It's a dark and foggy morning as they find their usual seats -- coaches at the front, rookies in the middle, veterans at the back.

"Not in a couple of years," overager Danny McDonald says with some grogginess when he is asked when he most recently was up so early on a Saturday morning.

Oulahen claims he has never done it. Across the back four seats sit Stuart Simmons, Oulahen, McDonald and Tyler Harrison, their feet up on the seats facing them, their heads resting on pillows.

Breakfast -- egg, cheese and ham on an English muffin (two each) with potatoes with fruit juice -- is catered by a local restaurant and dispersed by assistant coach Kelly Harper. Fatigue doesn't kill the appetites of a group of hungry teens, and soon each Styrofoam box is empty. The early hour and the fact the team was banging around on the cramped rink at St. Mike's hours ago means it's a relatively quiet 3 1/2-hour ride to Windsor. Rookies are responsible for bringing movies on trips and J.F. Houle pops Liar, Liar and Bad Santa into the VCR a few minutes after the 8:06 a.m. departure.

Some players watch, others are glad for more sleep. Some play cards, and yes, even before 9 a.m. on a Saturday, some are doing homework.

Turns out, the ride home is not much louder, despite the Battalion having beaten the Spitfires 3-2 for its second win in as many games. Dinner consists of a tasty chicken wrap, rice and Gatorade (ordered earlier in the week by Harper and delivered to the bus as it pulls out of the parking lot). Celebration of the victory does not exist, given the fact there is another game to be played the next afternoon. On the small television screens, Mel Gibson slaughters his way through his 2000 movie The Patriot.

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It's minutes before game time in Windsor and second-year forward Brock McPherson wanders into the hallway outside the visitors dressing room, looking for someone to fasten his sweater to the back of his pants.

"Cass, tie me down," McPherson says to rookie Jason Cassidy.

"Can't do it yourself?" is Cassidy's reply.

"I could," McPherson says, "but I got someone to do it yesterday and I scored."

Sure enough, after the Spitfires have scored to take an early 1-0 lead, McPherson is credited with a goal midway through the first period when he drives to the net and the puck bounces off his body past Windsor goalie Kyle Knechtel.

For a club that woke up in the dark hours of the morning, the Battalion hustles with gusto throughout the afternoon against the Spits, playing cat-and-mouse with the hosts before Oulahen puts Brampton ahead for good at 6:55 of the second period during a power play.

The pre-game preparation is fairly standard with Brampton. Taped to the wall is the opponents' roster, with their top forwards, defencemen and tough guys highlighted by Butler. There's a list of six keys to the game, and a general breakdown of what the club should do if it wants to win. Players stop by to give the sheets a quick look.

If one wants to get some reading done, try it in an OHL dressing room in the minutes before a game, after the pre-game warmup. It's quieter than one might think as the players stare at the walls, at the floor, at each other, concentrating on the next 2 1/2 hours of their lives. There are a few murmurs between players, and the silence is pierced only by trainer Brad Handley, who, every two minutes, yells into the room how much time is left before they hit the ice. Harper addresses the club, reiterating not so much the opponents' weaknesses but what the Battalion must do for its best chance of success. Butler walks into the room with about five minutes to go before the puck drop and gives one last pep talk. Because the dressing rooms in Windsor aren't much bigger than the average family room, the forwards dress in one while the defencemen and goalies dress in another. The rooms are connected by a door and the defencemen and goalies file into the bigger room to listen to Harper and Butler.

"The biggest thing is it's a small rink," Butler says, 20 pairs of eyes on him, a reference to the ice surface that is 195-by-80 feet. "Let's hit and pin. It's no different than last night's rink (the tiny 180-by-80 foot surface at St. Mike's). If you're out of position, it's a scoring chance for them. That was a great win last night but let's forget about it."

Butler goes over the lines and is done. There's the expected roar as players finally let loose some of their adrenalin. They have been in the rink since 11:45 a.m., taping sticks, stretching and sitting off by themselves in the stands. The encouraging voice of overage defenceman Simmons, one of the more vocal Battalion, rings clear in the room as the players trudge out the door: "Come on, boys. We didn't drive all this way for nothing. We didn't get up so f------ early for nothing!"

Just under an hour later, the 2-2 tie after one period doesn't sit well with some.

"We gotta start battling, boys," one player yells during the intermission.

Another barks: "We have some guys f------ bailing out!"

Butler, whose personal rule is to stay out of the room until 10 minutes have passed, tells them they have no excuse "for bus legs now."

Oulahen puts Brampton up 3-2 and the Battalion is back out for the third with the realization it's just 20 minutes away from its second road win within 24 hours. A few minutes in, the Spits are applying pressure.

"Let's play in their end!" Battalion defenceman Nick Duff shouts from the far end of the bench. "How about that, eh? Let's play in their end!"

Goalie Daren Machesney, who watched from the bench as Kevin Couture tended goal the night before at St. Mike's, makes a huge pad save on Windsor's Tom Mannino in the final minutes. On another game-saver, Duff throws his body in front of a shot from the slot.

"That's f------ balls, boys!" defenceman Phil Oreskovic yells to the rest of the bench. "That's balls out there!"

The Battalion rushes to congratulate Machesney after the final buzzer and by the time they skate off the ice, Butler is standing outside the room, congratulating each player by name.

"The first period was tough to get into with my legs, but by the third I felt awesome," Machesney says as he peels off his sweat-soaked equipment. "That was a great, greasy road win."

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There's another collective reason the Battalion is happy after the Windsor triumph. The club has just achieved its second segment goal of the season.

Rather than give his team a couple of long-term goals for the season -- for example, 33 wins and 75 points -- Butler breaks the schedule into segments. There are four segments of eight games, and four segments of nine games.

The team establishes a goal (in points) for each segment, and for every point over the goal, each player gets $12. There are team bonuses as well -- if the team meets a goal, it's $100 to the team account; three points over the goal is $125; and six points over the goal gets the team $150. In each segment, players list three individual and three team goals. Later, they will meet with Harper and Butler to discuss their goals and whether they were achieved. And they will discuss their hockey grades as well; the last thing Butler and Harper do every night after a game is grade the players from one to five, with five being the best grade. Goalies are rated on a one-to-10 scale. If a player is rated a one or a two, he will hear about it in the next meeting with the coaches.

"You have to teach goal-setting in junior," Butler says. "It helps the guys prepare for other parts of life. You have to set goals away from the rink, too."

For the first eight-game segment, the goal was nine points, and the Battalion finished with 11. For the second, the goal again was nine points, which the team met bang on with the victory against the Spitfires.

"I think it's great," Cassidy says. "It's a lot easier to focus on a short-term goal, because in the end they will work out to be a long-term goal."

And it works well with veterans.

"In Kingston we set goals, but we did them on a yearly basis," says McDonald, who came to Brampton from the Frontenacs in a deal days prior to the season opener. "Focusing on eight games at a time is good, and so are the rewards."

For each player there are different pressures. None are bigger than playing for each other and doing it well, but for Oulahen and Wojtek Wolski, there is more. As captain, Oulahen knows he is under his teammates' microscope at all times. But in Windsor, there are two other people watching his every move. Perched high in one corner in the Windsor Arena are Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and his right-hand man, assistant GM Jim Nill. They've made the hop over the border to scout Oulahen, whom the Wings picked in the fifth round in 2003.

"Most young players like to score goals and will sacrifice defence to make an offensive play," Holland says. "But Ryan doesn't do that. He takes great pride in the defensive part of the game. We are very happy with the way he has developed."

Despite the faith the Wings have in him, Oulahen acknowledged earlier in the week that the lack of a new NHL collective bargaining agreement worries him. Under the one that expired in mid-September, the Wings would have had until June 1, 2005 to sign Oulahen, and it's probable they would have done so. Now, no one is quite sure what a new agreement, whenever it is signed, will mean to the 2003 picks.

"It's a little scary, but I think everything will turn out in the end," Oulahen says after practice one sunny afternoon on the backyard deck of his billets' home. "I picture the Detroit Red Wings up in the stands looking at me and it makes me focus for every game. I know if I take a shift off, it looks bad on me. I always say to myself that I want to play hockey, and if I want it badly, good things will happen."

A belief in one's self helps motivate Wolski as well, but in the early stretches of the season, he has struggled. A first-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche last June, Wolski had 12 points in the Battalion's first 14 games. But of his five goals, four were on power plays and another was during a four-on-four situation in overtime. Wolski winds up contributing five points -- a goal and four assists -- in the three Battalion wins. The production comes after a 40-minute closed-door meeting with Butler and Harper on Wednesday morning. The Avs are keeping close tabs on Wolski and are wondering when he will kick it into gear.

"It was pretty positive," Wolski says. "Stan tries to help you out as much as possible. I don't think there is an end to what you can do to help the team. If I am not doing enough right now, I have to pick it up."

Says Butler: "Once players are drafted into the NHL in the first round, you're not a potential prospect anymore -- you're a real prospect. There aren't 30 teams interested in you, it's down to one. And the expectations go up."

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Winning isn't everything; wanting to is.

Together everyone achieves more.

The price of success is less than the price of failure.

There is no traffic jam on the extra mile.

Winners are ordinary people with extraordinary drive.

Are you ready?

If you're a member of the Battalion, those passages have been seared into your mind-set. They're stencilled on the walls in the dressing room at The Bunker and the adjoining weight room, as are lists of Battalion captains, those Battalion who have participated in the world junior championship, the winners of the annual fitness tests in training camp and those who have played a game in the NHL.

The last phrase -- Are you ready? -- is printed over the exit door, the final thing players will see if they gaze up as they head on to the ice.

There's a somewhat different atmosphere as the players prepare for a home game, given the familiar surroundings. After using the tiny dressing rooms at St. Michael's and in Windsor the two previous days, their cosy home dressing room probably feels even more inviting than usual.

It's 1 p.m., an hour before game time, and already rookies Aaron Snow and Jason Cassidy have changed into their suits. Told by Butler the night before they will be healthy scratches -- the coach wants to get a look at Graham McNabb, who will play in his first OHL game, and sophomore Patrick Sweeney is back in the lineup after skipping the trip to Windsor to rest a sore back -- Snow and Cassidy have completed their off-ice exercises. Players are expected to wear snappy, fashionable (in most cases) suits for home games; on the road, the players are clothed in matching green track suits.

A day after the high of playing in his hometown, Snow tries to accept another milestone -- sitting out for the first time.

"It's pretty tough," says Snow, who had a goal and an assist in his first 16 OHL games. "I know it's part of being a rookie, that you have to battle through it and be ready for the next one. It's just not that easy."

Also watching from the sideline will be sophomore defenceman Phil Oreskovic, who was on the ice with partner John de Gray in the final minute of the previous day's one-goal win over the Spitfires. Oreskovic has a sheepish look as he is approached in the dressing room by a reporter about 90 minutes before game time. On his left foot is a wide swath of bandage, required after Oreskovic stepped on a meat hook in his parents' garage the night before.

"I have three little holes on the bottom of my foot, it hurts like hell and I can't put any pressure on it," says Oreskovic, who then notes there is a lack of ribbing from his teammates. "They're just upset I can't play. It's kind of flattering."

Butler can scarcely believe the nature of the injury, but he knows it was an accident. Oreskovic's place will be taken by Czech import Tomas Stryncl.

As players trickle in to start putting on their equipment, the task at hand is obvious. Another win and the Battalion will completely wipe out the ugly taste of a week earlier, when it lost all three of its games.

Again, it's fairly quiet. Harper enters the room to go over a few last-minute details. He notes that it's also the second game in as many days for the visiting Whalers (who lost in overtime in Owen Sound the night before) and then tells the players the "game will be determined in the first period."

McNabb gets a few tips for faceoffs from Harper, one of the few times Harper or Butler speaks directly to a player during the pre-game talks.

Harper leaves. For a moment or two, the only sound is faint shouting coming from one of the other rinks in the complex. Oulahen, ever the captain, breaks the silence: "Nabber's in the lineup! That's huge! And Tomas, too!"

McNabb smiles. Then it's Wolski's turn: "Yesterday was our tired day, boys. We've got tomorrow off!"

McPherson simply advises his teammates to "Empty the tank!"

That's when Butler enters, at 1:58 p.m. At no time in any of his addresses to the players on the weekend is there any hesitation in what Butler says, no ums, no ahs, no pausing.

"It's very important to establish a winning presence at home, more than last year," Butler tells his charges. "Short shifts. Take the body. It's another great bounce-back weekend. Let's go!"

There is no score in the first period, but in the second Butler's decision to put McNabb on a line with fellow rookie J.F. Houle and second-year centre John Seymour looks golden. Houle scores midway through the period, and after Plymouth ties the game, there is Oulahen, ripping a quick shot past goalie Justin Garay while Brampton is short-handed.

About the only downer for the Battalion on what will be an otherwise successful day is the crowd, or lack thereof. It's announced at just 1,590, which one Battalion staffer says is the smallest in recent memory.

It's not much new to Battalion owner Scott Abbott, whose team never has played to big crowds in multi-cultural Brampton since its first home game on Oct. 9, 1998.

"It's my view that people are not going to follow the team and buy tickets unless they care about the team," Abbott says from his private box, where he makes meticulous notes during games. "You hear a lot of talk about sports being entertainment. I don't believe that for a second. We are in the allegiance business. If you watched the World Series, you saw fans in Boston and St. Louis paint their faces, wear caps and T-shirts, hold their heads in their hands. They are not doing that because they are or want to be entertained. They are doing it to express their allegiance to the team they are following. We have to keep working to make more people in Brampton and surrounding areas care about this team."

Down in the dressing room between periods, Couture asks his defencemen to keep moving the Whalers from the front of the net; Butler's last words are: "You have 20 minutes left to work hard and you are going to be tired anyway. Put the pedal to the metal."

Houle scores again, with an assist from McNabb, and Wolski blasts a shot past Garay during a five-on-three power play.

Final score: Brampton 4, Plymouth 1. The perfect weekend is completed.

In the dressing room, after three games in which they rarely let up, the Battalion lets its hair down a bit, savouring the third win. McNabb is relieved after performing well in his OHL debut; each member of the line is congratulated by teammates for leading the way. Someone ensures the music is a little louder than it has been all week.

All of the preparation that went into the weekend -- the tough practices, circuit on Tuesday, agility drills on Thursday -- is met with the desired result. Three wins, which put the Battalion in sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference.

Butler and Harper grade the players in their office. Abbott sits nearby, and Handley pops in to inform Butler of the players' various bumps and bruises.

In the trainers' room, McPherson, a well-grounded kid who knows just what to say at just the right time, sinks into the cold tub.

"I need to go crawl in a hole and die," McPherson says. "My body is so sore. It's pretty bad when you have to ice your whole body."


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