TORONTO - Brent Ladds leaves as he began the job 36 years ago, with hockey trying to clean up its act.
It is the same, yet so entirely different for the outgoing president of the Ontario Hockey Association, which is why he loved his job, was consumed by it, and finally determined it was time for someone else to take over one of hockey’s most progressive bodies.
“I came into the OHA just after Roy McM urtry’s inquiry into hockey violence,” said Ladds in a wide-ranging farewell interview. “The game was so absolutely different back then. When I hear people talk about the violence today, I kind of laugh a little. I think the game on the ice has transitioned very positively. The degree of violence when I started in this job to today is not even close. You don’t see the kind of fighting we saw in the ’70s. You don’t see the bench-clearing brawls and the stick stuff.
“I realize there’s always something to do better and the work that’s been done on head checks, on concussions, to make the game better, that’s a very positive thing.”
When Ladds first began with the OHA, it was one of the most powerful hockey operations in the country. The Ontario Hockey League used to be under its control but the more the OHL and the Canadian Hockey League grew together — three major junior leagues becoming one — the less need there was for OHA involvement. Instead, Ladds has been directly overseeing 15 other leagues, 3,500 players — that’s more than four times the number of players in the National Hockey League — and was essentially responsible for tier-two Junior A hockey, Junior B, Junior C, and Junior D from Windsor to Ganonoque, from the tip of North Bay to the Niagara Peninsula.
While that may read a little bit like ‘this land is my land’, Ladds put more than his share of miles on his car on winter nights.
“I was probably in a rink three, four nights a week,” he said. “Partway through this winter, I thought this is getting to be too much. I’m 61 (he’s really still 60 until July). It’s time for a younger man to take this job.
“I think our game and the Association is in a good place but I think it needs new energies. It’s a healthy move for the OHA and for myself. I used to pride myself at being at games, on committees, in meetings. It was a busy time. I think you just hit a wall. You try and keep a positive spin on everything you do, but I could feel I was getting cranky. That wasn’t the legacy I wanted to leave behind.”
A younger man will take the job, but it isn’t known who will get the position yet. Ladds plans on being around — and the OHA wants him — to mentor the new boss and show him the ropes, indoctrinate him into a job where there never is a shortage of issues or incidents to deal with. That’s the one constant of hockey: We can love it as much as we do, we can attach ourselves to it, but inevitably there are moments of emotion that need to be dealt with. He’s had his share of controversies over the years, including suspending a Brampton franchise coached by the nefarious David Frost for their violent escapades.
And while so many of Ladds’ memories are good ones, it’s clear he has been scarred by the worst occurrence of his 36 years on the job.
“For me, personally, the Donald Sanderson tragedy was the darkest time. To me, he was the epitomy of a player in our program. He loved the game. Here was a kid doing what he loved to do. He wasn’t the best player, but that didn’t matter. He got the most out of himself. He was playing hockey for all the right reasons. I don’t think anyone ever saw that coming — a death from a hockey fight. A kid who didn’t fight. That was so sad for his family, so sad for all of us. I think about that a lot.
“His mom has done some great things since in supporting a concussion symposium and supporting causes that keeps Donald’s memory alive. I was never a pro-fighting guy but I think over the years we’ve all changed our views on fighting. And on our watch, the fighting numbers have really dropped, almost to the point of them being negligible now.”
Ladds once pushed for an automatic ejection for anyone who fights in a game but after he thought the OHA had agreed to it, a special meeting of the board overturned the rule. He sounds as though he’s still in favour of the automatic ejection which would go along with Ladds’ impressive record on player safety.
He was instrumental in the pushing of the STOP patch on the back of minor-hockey jerseys. He was heavily involved in further education for coaches and referees directly involved with violence in hockey. He did pioneer work with specialist Dr. Charles Tator on spinal injuries. Ladds also pushed forth a hit-to-the-head rule that was later adopted by Hockey Canada and still needs to be adopted by the NHL.
Ladds does wonder about the Canadian propensity — or it is the hockey propensity — to overanalyze the game on an ongoing basis.
“I don’t know why we do it but we do,” he said. “I think we go too far sometimes on that. We’re constantly tweaking, changing the rules. It can be a good thing and a bad thing when you do that. The NHL adopted the restraining fouls, and so we followed suit and did the same. They sent a message to us. Now they’ve digressed somewhat in what they allow and what they don’t. There’s a message in that.”
All that said, not everything on Ladds’ watch has been progressive. Perhaps the biggest mess he leaves behind is the state of tier-two junior hockey in the province. Where once tier-two was considered a development league for either the OHL or American university hockey, it had grown out of control into a dad’s league of sorts, with too many dreamers operating franchises for the benefit of their own children’s development.
“I never envisioned in the early ’80s that this could happen,” said Ladds. “It didn’t seem conceivable to me that parents would go that extent for their kids in hockey. But I think we’ve scaled back somewhat in past few years and we’ll do some more scaling back in the future. The problem with this kind of ownership is there is no sense of community. You don’t sell any tickets because you don’t draw fans. And the contradiction has been, we need the family ownership in order to survive but is family ownership the best thing for tier-two hockey?
“That’s a hot political question and we’ve cut the tier-two league back a lot. I think they’ll be more cutting in the future.”
But that will be one someone else’s watch. After 36 years, Brett Ladds has earned the right to pass at least one hot issue on to his successor.