Next crisis, please

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:08 AM ET

David Branch was on radio Tuesday, on television Wednesday and in the newspaper today, which can only mean one thing: The spit has fit the fan again in junior hockey.

This has been the case for only the past 25 years, give or take a week.

The issue in vogue this time happens to be underage players in junior hockey. Last week, it was coaches attacking coaches. The week before, it was stickwork. Before that, well, who can remember?

Find an issue, a controversy, a reason to complain and somewhere along the way, when you require clarity, you will find Branch, commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League, president of junior hockey in Canada, trying to make the insane sound sane.

And he is, for the record, pretty good at it.

"Today," he sighed yesterday at the end of a long day, "has been one of those days."

The kind of days he has been living happily for only a quarter of a century, which is only 24 years, 10 months and two weeks longer than his predecessor on the job lasted.

"I've never thought I'd be doing this this long," said Branch, who has spent a lifetime trying to police what is generally unpoliceable. "Some of my friends and family thought I was crazy to take this job when I did. They said I wouldn't last very long doing it.

"You don't need to put yourself through all of this, they told me. I figure I'd do it for a few years and then move on."

Instead, he just kept moving. The OHL has grown from 12 teams to 20. Around it, almost everything else has changed. While Branch's committee was ruling on the potential eligibility of a 14-year-old (soon to be 15) forward to play major junior, the subject of his education seemed just as paramount.

"Shows you how much the whole attitude has changed," Branch said. "I got a call years ago from a team that had one of these young kids. They said: 'You've got to talk to the parents. They're telling the kid he doesn't have to go to school because he's going to the NHL.' I had to convince the parents that the kid had to go to school. You don't see that at all, anymore."

Yesterday, as Branch talked about young John Tavares, he referred to him more than once as an exceptional student, or as an exceptional young man. And he made a convincing argument for his entry into the OHL.

The coyotes in the wilderness, as always, will howl about this. They will scream about a kid getting manipulated by a system and a career being rushed when it doesn't need to be.

You think that way until you hear the detailed process Branch and his committee put in place to deal with only the exceptional athletes and frankly, the exceptional people. This wasn't knee -jerk. This wasn't rushed or careless. This was typical Branch. Sound, logical and modern.

"No two issues are identical," said Branch, who probably would qualify for work as a fireman if he ever chose to leave hockey. He knows how to quiet the flames. "There's always a challenge somewhere. You usually don't know where it's coming from."

The worst situation he ever had to deal with came seven years ago, when Branch suspended for life a 6-foot-7, 265-pound teenager named Jeff Kugel for attacking another player from behind. The publicity at the time was Bertuzzi-like.

"He didn't have the necessary skills to play in our league and was only there for one reason," Branch said. "And the worst part was, you meet him and find out he's a great young man. That hurt. The whole thing hurt. Those kind of things always hurt."

David Branch made his announcement that day -- as he always does -- and then moved on the next crisis. Always moving on.


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