Quarter century of OHL success

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:06 AM ET

'Tis the week before Christmas and the Ontario Hockey League offices appear emptier than a post-Boxing Day bank account. Or so it seems.

As a visitor walks through the glass doors into the league's Scarborough headquarters, all is quiet. Where is everybody? Is there a mad sales rush at the local mall?

"Hello, is anybody here?" an inquiring voice calls out.

As if on cue, OHL commissioner David Branch emerges from around a corner. He apologizes for the absence of a receptionist, explaining that the entire office staff generously has been granted time off for the holidays while the league's 20 teams enjoy an eight-day break.

On this particular day, Branch is the only person perched at a desk. For the man celebrating his 25th anniversary at the helm of the OHL, the job never ends.

And that's just the way he likes it.

Oh, there have been opportunities to jump to the NHL during the past quarter century. Yet, for one reason or another, the personable Branch, 55, has always remained where he feels most comfortable.

Maybe it's because he is so good at what he does. Maybe it's because this is a job that affords Branch the continued opportunity to provide a personal touch to a game he loves, a task that is much more difficult in the big-bucks world of the NHL.

Earlier in the day, Branch was at a funeral. The father of an OHL player had died and Branch wanted to be on hand to lend his support.

"These are young people. They look like adults, they act like adults, but they are still young people, very sensitive people with certain needs," Branch said of his players. "We always try to be cognizant of that.

"There has been tremendous growth in our league for the student athlete. Every player in our league receives financial funding and scholarships. There are support mechanisms in place for drug and alcohol counselling. We've tweaked the travel schedule, too. Players in our league probably miss less school than guys in minor hockey."

Times certainly have changed since Branch became the OHL's first commissioner in 1979. But one thing remains consistent: His concerns for the teenage athlete in the league.

"We had a kid caught for drunk driving recently and I was asked if I would suspend him,"Branch said. "Why? He's a young guy. We should support him."

In order to honour his 25 years at the helm of the OHL, the Toronto Sun asked Branch to document the highs and lows of his tenure. The result is a unique insight into junior hockey over the years.

"Sometimes people ask me when I'm going to get a real job," Branch said, grinning from ear to ear.

Work is not supposed to be this much fun.

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MOST SATISFYING ACCOMPLISHMENT

- League unity.

"Just getting the 12 -- and now 20 -- teams to work together and share the responsibility they have to the game, how we play it and how we present it. We often say to an owner 'You don't really own that team. The Oshawa Generals belong to the people of Oshawa. You are just a custodian, so to speak.' "

MOST DISAPPOINTING MOMENT

- The Jeff Kugel Affair.

On Oct. 25, 1998 Kugel, a forward with the Windsor Spitfires, snapped during a game against the Owen Sound Platers, jumping off the bench during a brawl and sucker-punching the Platers' Juri Golicic. Kugel then chased Chris Minard around the ice before an official stepped in. The OHL originally banned him for life, but softened its stance the following season.

"The images of what occurred with Jeff were alarming. Suddenly, it is drawing not only national but international attention. The image that is presented to people unfamiliar with your product is pretty frightening. All the work you've done to build up the perception of your league is tarnished with one action.

"I really felt sorry for Jeff, too. He was characterized as a person he really wasn't. Once you got to know him, he was a great young person. Unfortunately, he wanted to play the game but didn't have the skills to play it. He had to rely on other ways to find an opportunity to play at our level ...

"When you have to tell a person, 'I'm sorry, you can't play here any more,' well, that's not easy."

MOST SHOCKING REVELATION

- Graham James.

Late in 1996, James, the former coach of the Swift Current Broncos, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of sexual assault on two players between 1984 and 1994. Sheldon Kennedy, one of his former players, later is identified as one of his victims as the fallout sickens the hockey establishment in Canada.

"It was so very concerning, so distasteful. It affected all of us at all levels of the game, whatever the league. I feel we responded in a fashion we had to. We commissioned Gordon Kirke to bring forward recommendations on how we might best guard ourselves from this ever happening again."

BEST TEAM

- 1980 Peterborough Petes

- 2004-05 London Knights

"Mike Keenan's Petes were as good as any team I've seen play in our league. They were a complete team led by Larry Murphy on the back end and won the OHL championship.

"Now, given how fresh it is in our minds, you have to include the London Knights, who set the CHL record for consecutive games without a loss (31). It's the way they've done it, with speed and skill. It's a credit to Mark and Dale Hunter."

MOST SURPRISING TEAM

- 1985-86 Guelph Platers.

"They weren't forecast by any prognosticators to be a force. They were quiet at the start of the season and suddenly started to win. Under the guidance of Jacques Martin, they came out of nowhere to win the Memorial Cup in Portland."

MOST MEMORABLE GAME

- Memorial Cup final, May 13, 1990. Oshawa 4, Kitchener 3 (2OT) at Hamilton.

"Copps Coliseum was full. Two OHL teams battling for the title. Eric Lindros playing for the Gens. I can remember sitting there marvelling at the back-and-forth style of play. There was no trapping. I can recall saying, 'I wish this game would never end.' It has always stuck with me."

MOST TALENTED PLAYER

- Eric Lindros (Oshawa).

"It's open for debate. But Lindros was such a dominant force when he came into our league. To me, he was the most dominant game-breaking type player I've seen."

MOST TALENTED PLAYER NOT TO MAKE A SPLASH IN THE NHL

- Dave Simpson (London).

"In 1981-82 he was the OHL's most outstanding player, the scoring champion, the most sportsmanlike player and the scholastic player of the year. What more could he do?"

BEST NATURAL GOALSCORER

- Tony Tanti (Oshawa).

Standing just 5-foot-9, the diminutive Tanti scored 143 goals in just two seasons (1980-81, 1981-82) for the Generals.

"He just had a knack for finding the net."

MOST SURPRISING PLAYER

- Doug Gilmour (Cornwall).

"I never thought he would ever make the NHL. He wasn't a big guy. He was so unassuming. He was the OHL's top player in 1982-83. I remember we were at the Canadian Hockey League awards and he couldn't do enough to help us, even helping set up the room. He taught me that you can't measure a guy's heart, no matter what his physical size.''

BEST GOALIE

- Jim Ralph/Darren Pang (Ottawa).

- Mike Moffat (Kingston).

"I thought all three were very influential to their teams. Ralph and Pang, his successor, were outstanding in the early 1980s. And what can you say of Moffat? He led Canada to its first gold medal at the world juniors back in 1982."

HARDEST HITTER

- Bill Loshaw (Guelph).

"He played on that '86 Memorial Cup team. He could really rattle the bones."

BEST RIVALRY

- Oshawa-Peterborough.

- London-Windsor.

"With historical traditions, obviously Oshawa-Peterborough. Kids in those communities have a rivalry even at a young age. London-Windsor is good, too."

MOST RABID FANS

- Sault St.Marie, Windsor.

"Both have special fans.The Soo, in my opinion, might be one of the best places for a kid to play. Just the tradition and the passion they have for the Greyhounds."

RINK THAT BEST REPRESENTS THE OHL

- Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.

"They've done a great job with that building. It's so fan friendly yet oozes tradition. It has a great feel."

FUNNIEST INCIDENT

- Dino vs. The Mascot.

"Dino Ciccarelli was with London at the time and was sitting in the penalty box in a game against the Brantford Alexanders when the Brantford mascot, Alex Gator, started sticking his head in there. Dino, being the fiery competitor he was, didn't like that.Let's just say he let Alex know it, too. I subsequently was given the task of compiling the conduct manual for mascots."


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