OHL’s Branch Checks Out With Plenty of Pluses
What do you think when you hear the name . . . Dave Branch?
Hockey fights, saving remote media members from a slew of bracing and dull winters as well as hot stoving in Ottawa come to mind from this end of the couch.
More? A great hockey man and a great hockey mind.
After channeling the Ontario Hockey League through four-and-a-half decades of choppy waters, Dave has chosen to step down as boss. His gain, in retirement, will be a big loss for junior hockey; hell, for hockey in general when he officially retires at the end of next season.
The Canadian Hockey League made that announcement earlier this week.
Back in 1980 Dave started his long journey as OHL commissioner. At times, as a media guy who covered the junior circuit off and on since 1989, I was left dealing with sometimes frustration, sometimes gratitude, sometimes puzzlement, sometimes celebration. But at no time did I ever, ever, ever envy Dave and the job he was enlisted to do.
First off as commissioner, you’re dealing with teenagers day-after-day. Try like around 500 teens day-after-day. And you thought getting your one or two or three to clean up his or her room or hauling out the garbage was tough? Try this babysitting gig.
Then there’s the 20 organizations, all run by adults, but adults with agendas. Big agendas.
And more babysitting.
Junior hockey, for all its lofty ambitions to remain true to growing the game from its most unfettered, fresh-faced roots, remains a business. Business means money; money comes from attendance; attendance comes from winning.
Bums in seats, laddies . . . bums in seats.
And if you’re running a team and can’t figure out what-went-wrong that season, fingers get pointed.
So then, when you want to pick apart and blame the league schedule and how the road sked is a killer and grossly unfair for your guys, or how the entry draft selection process is laid out unfairly for your guys, or how your guy – and not their guy – gets slapped with a five-game suspension . . . who you gonna call?
Well, Dave Branch of course.
In 1989, I met the commissioner for the first time. (This is where we reel in that part about the potential for long winters in small communities).
The Guelph Platers were on the move and the move was being made to Owen Sound, Ont. Population: 20,000. Winters: Snowy and potentially mundane.
The announcement that the Platers were rolling up Hwy. 6 to Georgian Bay was welcome music.
The team wasn’t very good the first few years, in fact decent in Year 1 but godawful in Year 2. It wasn’t until 1999 when the club made larger waves as it fell just a few games short of an OHL final.
But all in all, the entertainment factor was high and much needed in those Januarys and Februarys. (We even spotted Dave up in those parts on occasion, generally during a Global TV game of the week broadcast. And hello there Jack Miller).
After relocating to Ottawa in 2000, I joined the Sun and joined the gang covering the 67’s. This was during Jeff Hunt’s heyday, and the team was raking in the crowds, averaging upwards of 9,000 per game.
Dave Branch sightings were widespread.
However, the 2000s were tough times for the OHL, in more ways than one. The fight to slow down fighting in the game was in full flight.
Every team was loaded with tough guys. Topping that list was Sarnia. The Sting had 308-minute man Marco Caprara as well as future NHL hard-nosers in Dan Carcillo, Richard Clune, Kris Newbury and Micheal Haley.
This was no day at the beach here. (Remembering one Sarnia/Ottawa clash at the Civic Centre where 67’s toughie Adam Smyth had to fight about eight of these guys).
Through it all, Dave Branch grew more and more concerned and eventually – in 2012 – ushered in a groundbreaking cap on fighting. Skaters who went over 10 fights per season (so pretty well everyone on Sarnia, God bless ‘em) was subject to suspension. The fan response was divisive. Dave had essentially rewritten the rule book. Some welcomed the ruling, some not so much.
Four years later, the OHL cut the cap down to three fights per season. The league had aggressively advanced its plan to curb scrapping, like it or not.
Dave and the league also approved tougher regulations for high-sticking, hits to the head and illegal/dangerous checking through the past 10-15 years.
Dave Branch will be remembered for making the game safer in ways he thought appropriate.
His tenure will also be remembered – from this end of the couch, again – for his cordial and kindly nature.
As mentioned, we saw a fair amount of Dave here in Ottawa. If he had time before jetting off to attend countless meetings or suspension hearings after games, he’d pop into 67’s coach Brian Kilrea’s hot stove stationed in the bowels of the Civic Centre.
Most times he’d show up with a quality cigar for Killer and running mate Bert O’Brien. The running dialogue and quips and cracks between these hockey minds was priceless.
Dave Branch leaves hockey and the junior circuit he helped build and navigate through in changing times next spring.
It’s a legacy. And it’s a proud one.