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High school hockey facing changes not everyone likes

'I think that when we shorten the season and say it's too expensive, we need to find a way to fix it, not just cut things off,' says former OHL player Justin Davis

Justin Davis is arguably the most successful coach in the local District 4/10 high school boys’ hockey league.

The Guelph resident, who turned 45 at the beginning of the month, has coached the Orangeville Bears to seven league titles in the past 12 seasons including this year’s title and is concerned the league could operate under a different format next season.

“I think with fees next year and no fees, I think the worry is they're going to say that high school hockey is too expensive,” he said at the CWOSSA AAA tournament in Fergus that his team also won. “They're going to cut games or go to a tournament format.”

The boys’ league has operated in a schedule that has seen them play each other team in the league at least once every season since its inception in the 1993-94 school year.

This season in its return to play after a pair of seasons lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, eight teams participated and teams played a 12-game regular season. To get 12 regular-season games, it meant single games against two teams and home-and-home series against each of the other five teams. That gave each team six road games.

“It's like all high school sports, I think the most fun they have is taking the bus home and stopping for food, no parents and playing music,” Davis said. “It just feels like a team. You see the 17-year-old AAA guys who want to do this more. That's the stuff that I really like.”

Davis, who commutes to Orangeville where he’s a physical education teacher at Orangeville District High School, began coaching high school hockey after he wrapped up his own playing career.

After single seasons of junior C and junior B hockey, Davis played five seasons in the Ontario Hockey League starting with the Kingston Frontenacs in the 1995-96 season and ending with the Ottawa 67’s in 1998-99, with a 22-game stint with the Soo Greyhounds sandwiched between.

“I did two years in Kingston and got traded to the Soo for a playoff run with Joe Thornton and that team,” he said. “We lost to the Guelph Storm and then finished off
two years in Ottawa and won the Memorial Cup my last year.”

He was drafted in the fourth round, 85th overall, by the Washington Capitals, in the NHL draft of 1996, but never played pro hockey in North America.

“I got offered a couple of AHL, East Coast contracts, but because I'd been drafted I kind of saw where my place in the hockey world was and I said I'm going to go to university and give my pro career a try after that,” Davis said. “After I finished university I ended up two years in Germany and then I got a teaching job at Centennial so I decided not to go back.”

The university career was five years with the Western Mustangs where he had 57 goals and 126 assists in 132 games to become Western’s all-time leading scorer.

He had 29 goals in 43 games his first season in Germany and 25 goals and 52 penalty minutes in 47 games in his second season.

By then, though, he’d become disillusioned with hockey, mainly due to seeing the differences in hockey cultures. His hockey exploits can be seen in his book Conflicted Scars: An Average Player’s Journey to the NHL that was published last year.

“It was just a different experience,” he said of playing in Germany. “When you're brought up in a junior system and go through the pro training camps, you think the Canadian coaches are the be all and end all. I remember the first shift I had, I dumped the puck cross corner and went to get it and the coach said 'We had the puck and you just gave them the puck. Why would you give them the puck?'”

When he stepped away from the sport, he had no intention of getting into coaching.

“I feel like hockey just always finds me. You try to hide out and somebody finds you played,” said Davis who also coached AAA teams in the Guelph Minor Hockey
Association for five seasons.

“When I retired and came back, my first teaching job was at Centennial and I got the girls' team. We went to CWOSSA and lost in the final, but that was the first time that I really enjoyed the game again, coaching them, so I got lucky with them. We won the District 10 championship. It was a great group of girls.”

He kept coaching hockey when he transferred to Orangeville DHS, although it was with the boys’ team.

And he got to bring some of the German hockey philosophy to his high school hockey team.

“It was just the way I see hockey coaching these guys,” he said. “We would change when the defenceman goes behind the net. We would change our entire unit and then we'd keep the puck. It gave me an interesting mindset.”

And now he’s concerned about the path that high school hockey could follow. The local high school girls’ leagues operated as a single D4/10 league for five seasons, but split into separate D10 and D4 leagues for the past 10 seasons. D10 continued with league play while D4 switched to the tournament style with most of the teams gathering at one location to play two or three shortened games in a single day.

In the first season of tournament play for D4 in 2010-11, there were five teams, meaning five regular-season tournaments – three in December and one each in January and February due to the January exams. Each team hosted a tournament.

This season there were three teams participating with one tournament a month and each team playing two slightly shortened games at each tournament. In the first season, game times were an hour apart at each tournament. This season they were two hours apart. Most high school games take about two hours to play.

“I think teams are very creative in what they do,” Davis said. “We’ve got to two or three (non-league) tournaments, but we don't have to do two or three tournaments. I think the league part is the integrity. Our kids love to play every school. We play 12 games. If it goes to 10 games, we play everybody and we have a playoff. There's just a way I think we can figure things out. These kids, this is their favourite part of coming to school and I'm sure that's true with basketball, volleyball and rugby. There are kids that wait for rugby season the whole year. You're afraid with the tournament format and saying you can't afford things, it's just what's our solution?”

Davis said making a decision to go to tournament play reminds him of when they cut the big bonuses in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

“You make these changes from the top that look fantastic and we're going to have a league still, but when we miss that, what's going to be the impact on our students? What's our impact? How does this help student learning? Them actually having to go to class and be in school so that they can play high school sports, that's something that I think they lose sight of.

“I get to know (the players). I help them with school and they come to school because of sports. That's what people don't realize sometimes. Not everybody's a 90 percent student. When you go to a tournament format, you're just taking the best players and sending them out for three weeks and it goes from there. I think for the integrity of what we're trying to do with these kids – our job is to help kids and feel pride in. I think that when we shorten the season and say it's too expensive, we need to find a way to fix it, not just cut things off.”