Interview with Dave Torrie, GM of the Soo Greyhounds (OHL)

Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver…are all names that come to mind when thinking of places in Canada.

Sault St. Marie isn’t one of them. Located about six hours from the hockey hotbed of London, Ontario, the OHL Arena Guide notes “For a city as isolated as Sault Ste. Marie, visiting fans are a seldom-seen rarity.”

However, it hasn’t stopped the locals from packing the home town building to watch their Greyhounds. Through the years the team has featured a who’s who of hockey – Ron Francis, Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito, Paul Coffey, John Vanbiesbrouck, Marty Turco…and that Wayne Gretzky guy.

For the last seven years the organization has been run by Dave Torrie, a man with his own impressive resume – he owned, coached and managed the Chatham Maroons (a successful junior B franchise) for 10 years and previously served as a scout and player personnel director for the ‘Hounds. Thus, the man knows hockey, especially at the junior level.

In an article a few days ago he offered up his opinions on several Kings prospects that have spent time in the Soo.  Today, he’s back for more – with insight into the world of junior hockey, the art of drafting players and thoughts about a very interesting road trip they’ll be taking this coming weekend as part of their training camp.

Enjoy!

MM:  Earlier this summer the Kings drafted Tyler Toffoli out of the OHL.  As a player born in 1992 he was part of the 2008 OHL draft, which has become one of more controversial drafts of late.  Several top players taken in the first round that year were accused of manipulating the draft by saying they were going to college instead.  Is this a common occurrence in junior hockey?

TORRIE:  It’s certainly there. Is it common? Well, in today’s game parents play a major factor in what goes on with their kids. They’ve invested large sums of money and they feel they should have a right in saying where the kid plays, where he develops and the type of program he’s in. And as a parent, you can understand that to an extent. I think as an organization your job is to provide a good environment where the kid can develop on and off the ice. If you do that, the parameters of the manipulation of the draft are reduced…or it doesn’t have as much influence as when you don’t produce and don’t have a good organization.

But, there is always going to be some manipulation of the draft process. It certainly benefits some teams more than others. It’s there and probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

For the kids that play that game, you’d like to think that maybe in the long term they won’t have the character to be successful. But, that hasn’t always been the case. Some of these kids have gotten into the markets they wanted to play in and they’re good kids and they’re good hockey players. So, that doesn’t always transpire. You’d like to think though that the kids who don’t try to manipulate the draft show a little more character and when it comes time for them to get to another level of hockey, that type of character allows them to be more successful.

Specifically, two of the names caught up in that ’08 controversy were players that went on to become top-10 picks at this year’s NHL Draft, Tyler Seguin (2nd overall, Boston Bruins) and Jeff Skinner (seventh, Carolina Hurricanes).  What do you recall about things you were hearing around the time of that infamous OHL draft?

There’s actually some of it in every draft. That year Skinner and Seguin sent out letters indicating they would pursue U.S. school options and obviously they both ended up in our league. Every kid has the right to change his mind. A kid can say he’s coming here and then change his mind and go to school later and vise versa.

That said, they’re obviously both great hockey players, so they would have been rated higher than they were drafted. Skinner, in particular, was drafted 20th. It makes it hard when the team drafting 20th is taking as good of a player or a better player than the team drafting first or second. How does that balance the powers in the league?

Everybody has their own opinion regarding was it a manipulation or was it a good recruiting job by Plymouth and Kitchener after the draft. If it’s a good recruiting job by those two organizations after the draft, then you have to tip your hat to them and give them credit for presenting kids a great opportunity to develop – they obviously have developed tremendously. You have to give credit to where credit is due. If they were recruited before the draft with the idea of saying no to 19 teams or even a percentage of teams, then that is manipulation. In this case, I have my own opinion and I think I’ll keep it private. But like I said, they certainly indicated they weren’t coming. They ended up there. It’s up to each person to decide, was that before or after?

Looking ahead to next June’s NHL Draft, the ‘Hounds have a player getting mentioned as a probable first rounder – center Daniel Catenacci. What should people know about him?

Very dynamic player. Outstanding skating. Outstanding energy. He needs to really combine that this year and parlay it into a little bigger point total. The good thing about Daniel is he enjoys playing both ends of the ice. He’s competitive defensively and he’s physical for a player that isn’t considered big. Last year, as a 16-year old, he played against the other team’s top centermen, that’s usually 19 or 20-year olds. He held his own offensively and defensively.

Over Labor Day weekend the team will be doing something pretty interesting, you’ll be traveling out west to play in a pre-season tournament against some WHL teams.  Your former coach, Craig Hartsburg (also a former Ducks coach), is there in Everett – the host city – did he help pull you in?

Craig definitely guided his General Manager, Doug Soetaert, to get in touch with me about the opportunity. After that, Doug and I spent some time discussing the parameters of it. It’s going to be a great experience for our players. In junior hockey you bus all over the province. So, to be able to take the kids for a weekend and fly out west, it’s pretty unique. We’ll get to play three teams that we normally wouldn’t play. We see it as a great team bonding atmosphere and a benefit to our players. No other OHL team is doing it right now.

Beyond the bonding aspect, is there also a little bit of pride on the line, with you guys being the lone OHL team taking on three WHL teams…or do you have to push that aside and remember these are just pre-season games?

I think it’s two fold. You shouldn’t get overly caught up in that because these are exhibition games and these aren’t teams we’re competing with for the next eight months after this in the regular season. So, I don’t think we should build that up any more that it needs to be. But, in the same sense, it’s a natural rivalry. When we get out there we are representing Ontario. Is it going to be our best team, maybe not. Will the other teams be dressing their very best team, maybe not. So, if you put everything into perspective, it doesn’t really mean a lot in the big picture, entering the season. But, there’s no doubt the Western teams will want to beat us and we’ll want to beat them. There might be a little extra incentive with it being Ontario vs. the West.

When it comes to developing players, the NCAA vs. CHL debate rages on.  You’ve seen it from a variety of different angles, so what do you say to kids and parents weighing junior hockey vs. college hockey?

I’m not a believer in negative recruiting. I don’t tell them there is something wrong with the NCAA. When I was in Chatham we had players opt to go that route and it worked out for some, not for others.  And I’m sure there are players that have come to the OHL that it hasn’t worked out perfect for also. So, all I can do is point out the benefits of our program.  My thing is “You’re going to come into St Ste Marie and you’re going to play for good people that want to guide you on and off the ice. You’re going to play for people that will have some patience with you. If you’re not a superstar in your first year, we’re not going to give up and go the other way.’

If I believe in a player, I believe sometimes you have to show patience and those players will come into their own at some point. I like to be straight forward and honest with players too. I believe our program is one of the best programs going. Our community and fans make it a great program.

How about the Memorial Cup (CHL Championship tournament, comprised of four teams – champions of the OHL, WHL, QMJHL and the host city)…do you like the current format, where the host city gets an automatic bye or does it dilute the value of calling it a championship tournament?

I think that’s one of the key points in making it attractive to host. It’s so expensive to host the Memorial Cup. We’ve looked at it the last two times Ontario has been eligible to host and the profits you have to guarantee are reaching all time highs because it’s been so successful. But, I don’t think it would be as successful as a business operation or in attracting fans and local interest if you didn’t have a local team involved. So, I absolutely think the fourth team should be the local team. And if you look at past history, those teams have always been competitive. On balance, those teams have been right in the thick of things…so, the host teams have done a fine job of competing on the ice.

The ‘Hounds have a long and proud history with many players that went on to be superstars in the NHL and the organization had lots of success in previous generations….what will it take to get the franchise back to the Memorial Cup?

In the end, it’s a combination of things. In a smaller market, and one that has a geographical challenge…in this league there are so many teams, players can somewhat try to dictate where they play, like we talked about earlier.  That’s the biggest change from 20 years ago.  When I was a junior age kid, your parents would put you on a bus or drive you to a center, drop you off and tell you to play hockey. That was the end of it. You didn’t ask a lot of questions. You were just happy to get an opportunity to play hockey at the highest level, by whatever team offered you that.

The environment has really changed over the last 10-12 years and that, to me, is our biggest challenge. Financially, we have to be able to compete and that’s where having a solid business plan comes in to play. Then, the hockey program has to put in a coaching staff that has a strong reputation of developing players on and off the ice. That’s an area where we believe we’re near the top of the league. We develop character kids that we believe whether they make it in hockey or not, they’ll become successful.

I think our reputation around the hockey circles would be we run a good solid program, run by good people, that has the kid’s best interest at heart. The sacrifices of playing away from home, where maybe the parents can’t view every game, is worth it if your kids are being put into a structured environment where they can be successful. We’re building into that area, where we’re facing a lot less adversity in attracting players than we did in previous years. You can work hard, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have the same opportunity to attract high-end kids as other programs, it’s going to be hard to beat those programs. I think we are getting to that position though, where players and parents realize this is a great place to play.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Over the last several years, the Kings have faced a few challenges when recruiting high-end free agents to come play in Southern California.  So, it seems that Sault Ste. Marie and Los Angeles have more in common than just a few hockey prospects.

They have similar problems, with both teams working on similar solutions.

The Mayor
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