They call it the Peterborough Mafia.
It's not a phrase you'd expect in reference to a central Ontario city with a population of fewer than 80,000 people. But in the context of hockey, the Peterborough Mafia is very real. In fact, it's a big reason the city and its team, the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League, will be the focal point of Saturday's Hockey Day in Canada celebration, which will be broadcast by CBC across Canada as well as by the NHL Network and NHL Gamecenter in the United States.
"We are a real hockey community. The fans know their game. So no matter who you are, when you're on the ice you can't fool the fans," said Petes president Jim Devlin, who attended the team's first game as a teenager in 1956. "Sometimes they can be hard on the players, but when they give hard work and show results, those guys are gods in this town."
In a rich history spanning more than 50 years, a lot of those players have gone on to conquer the hockey world outside Peterborough. Established as a farm team for the Montreal Canadiens, the longest continuously operating junior hockey team in Canada has graduated more than 150 players to the NHL, more than any junior team.
That includes the names Redmond, Gainey, Yzerman, Pronger and Staal. Wayne Gretzky played three games for the Petes as a 15-year-old. Even less-prominent Peterborough alums have gone on to enjoy lengthy NHL careers.
The longevity is a trademark many former Petes attribute to a coaching lineage passed down from Scotty Bowman to Roger Neilson to Gary Green to Mike Keenan to Dick Todd, the former New York Rangers assistant who coached for 15 seasons in Peterborough and won 500 games faster than any coach in Major Junior A history.
Kris King, a Petes alum who played for Todd prior to 849 NHL games, serves as the League's vice president of hockey operations.
"I played three full seasons there. Then I was playing in Binghamton in the American Hockey League. They sent me to Fort Wayne in the International Hockey League. I said, forget this, I'm quitting," King said. "Peterborough was good enough to bring me back and I got signed by Detroit thereafter and got my chance to fulfill my dream of playing in the NHL. It had a lot to do with Dick Todd believing in me. I don't think I would have been an NHL player had I gone anywhere else."
It's hardly surprising that the Petes dipped into their history when it came time to find a new coach late last year. Following two-and-a-half losing seasons, Mike Pelino was relieved of his duties on Dec. 22 and replaced by assistant Jody Hull, a former Petes player under Todd who spent six of his 15 NHL seasons playing for Neilson.
After starting this season 8-23-3-1 (wins-losses-OT losses-SO losses), the Petes have gone 9-5-0-3 under Hull.
"From Scotty Bowman to Roger Neilson to Mike Keenan, it's quite a storied franchise as far as coaches go," Hull said. "For myself, it's about keeping that winning tradition going here."
Hull is a disciple of "The Peterborough Way."
"I think Scotty Bowman was the guy who introduced it," Hull said. "He was big on playing strong defense and protecting your own end and the offense will take care of itself. That was always passed down amongst the coaches. If you're able to do that at a young age, your steps to the next level are much easier."
For numerous players who have graduated from the Petes, the next level isn't just about playing in the NHL. Many have remained involved in the game long after they've hung up their skates.
King's former Peterborough teammate, Kay Whitmore, is the NHL's senior manager of hockey operations and goaltender equipment, and another former Petes player, Colin Campbell, is the League's senior executive vice president of hockey operations.
Other Petes have gone on to enjoy success as general managers (Bob Gainey, Steve Yzerman), coaches (Doug Jarvis) and broadcasters (Greg Millen, Bob Errey). Former Petes teammates Luke Richardson and Dallas Eakin recently faced off as the coaches in the AHL All-Star Game.
"Guys have taken what they learned in Peterborough and put it toward their life after hockey. I'm telling you, when people look at your resume and see you played in Peterborough, that goes a long way toward getting you in the door," King said. "If you ask any of them, they'll attribute that to what they learned about the game and about being a person in Peterborough. It's 'The Peterborough Way.'"
That philosophy may have been most prominently on display when Bowman in 1993 took over a Detroit Red Wings team led by Yzerman. The captain had been collecting incredible point totals year after year, but at the request of his new coach, strayed from his offensive focus to cultivate a more well-rounded approach to the game.
In nine seasons together in Detroit, Bowman and Yzerman won the Stanley Cup three times, something Hull often points out to his players in Peterborough.
"It's a story that's told so guys understand that you have to be able to adapt," Hull said. "Steve changed his game to become more responsible defensively and suddenly they started raising the Stanley Cup over their head. That story with Scotty and Steve, we probably tell that once a month to players. It's quite a unique story."
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