Six members of the Los Angeles Kings’ organization have history in the Ontario Hockey Association, but none of them consider the OHA something that’s in their past.
Instead, members of the Los Angeles chapter of the OHA alumni association believe the OHA and the things they learned there remain with them on a day-to-day basis. Each has a clear-cut understanding of just how much the OHA has meant in the development of their NHL careers.
Justin Williams, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Carter, Vice President of Hockey Operations & Director of Player Personnel Mike Futa, and James Richmond (Aurora Tigers reigning OHA Coach of the Year, who has done some consulting work with the Kings) believes coming of age in Ontario and the OHA helps them every time they step on the ice or walk into the front office. They all retain a strong sense of pride and loyalty toward the OHA.
“You ask any of these guys where they came from and they are all incredibly loyal to the OHA,” says Tanner Pearson, who had four goals and eight assists in last spring’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Pearson fondly remembers the OHA as the place where he began establishing the foundation on which his NHL career would stand.
“I played in the alliance in Kitchener all my life,” Pearson says. “It was a great place to play. You made your friends and played with them, and that’s where it all began for me. Even going back last summer, I got on the ice with the minor-midget team there and helped out wherever I could.”
The Kings’ graduates of the OHA figure a little dedication is the least they can offer as payment for all the benefits they have received.
Players just don’t forget their time in the OHA. It’s both a place where dreams begin and a place that prepares a player for the reality of what it takes to compete at the next levels of the game.
“The fierceness of the competition produces very competitive kids,” says Futa. “It’s bred into the kids in Ontario. It’s not unique, you can get that a lot of places, but in Ontario, you know you are going to get it.”
Futa says it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, but players who come out of Ontario and then go on the next level, do so with a special intangible. Maybe it’s a simple case of survival of the fittest; if you can thrive in the hockey hotbed of Ontario, it’s only logical that you excel as you climb up the ranks.
“It’s hard to pinpoint what makes an Ontario player special,” Futa says. “Competitive nature and intangibles aren’t limited to Ontario, but if a player can get through the competitiveness in Ontario, you get a better read of whether they can make it through.”
Williams, a member of his hometown Cobourg Cougars before going on to an NHL career where he earned the nickname “Mr. Game 7,” and won the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy, has no trouble finding a common thread that runs through most players who began developing their games in the OHA.
“We have a lot of Ontario guys on this team,” Williams says. “No matter how skilled we are, we all seem to have the same type of drive. We all have that same grittiness and it starts in Ontario.”
Pearson believes the level of competition at the OHA level was paramount to his development. If you want to be the best, Pearson believes, you must play against the best and do so as early in your career as possible. The OHA provided that challenge.
“I think the level of competition you play against in the OHA has a lot to do with why so many players make it to the NHL,” Pearson says. “Every Canadian kid playing hockey wants to make it as far as you can, so you do whatever it takes to keep your career going. You start to learn what it takes in the OHA.”
Richmond, the Kings’ consultant, believes playing in the OHA helps players learn how to win.
“I think they play at such a high level of competition that they learn to be winners,” Richmond says. “There are so many players around the league that have come out of the OHA, and so many here in LA. Even in our front office, Rob Blake and Nelson Emerson both played in the OHA. It’s a great place to start.”
Tyler Toffoli, a winger who had seven goals and seven assists in the Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup last spring, believes success breeds success. He has a knack for raising the level of his play in big games (Toffoli had two goals and five points in in 10 playoff games in 2013), and last spring he raised the Stanley Cup. Being part of a great team, Toffoli believes, brings the best out in a player. Playing for strong, talented teams back home in Ontario established a base that helped make his NHL dreams come true.
“Fortunately for me, I grew up playing on a really good hockey team,” Toffoli says. “We always had teams playing against us that wanted to beat us and were motivated to play to the best of their ability. I really think that made me a better hockey player.”
Toffoli is not the only member of his Toronto Junior Canadiens team that is better for his OHA experience. Many of his teammates have gone on to find success in hockey.
“My minor hockey team,” Toffoli says, “had, I think, six guys drafted into the OHL in the first round. One guy committed to university. One guy is now playing in Europe and I am one of two guys from that team that is playing in the NHL. We have a couple guys in the AHL. We had a really good team and we all grew together and I think that’s why a lot us succeeded. We had a lot of fun doing it, too.”
Playing in a league governed by the OHA is not only a rite of passage for ambitious young players in Ontario; it also provides an important early measuring stick.
“At that point in your career,” the Kings’ Williams says, “you gage yourself against other players as to how successful you can be. Yes, everyone has talent, but if you can combine talent and the mental aspects at the same time, you start realize if you can become an NHL player.”
Hockey dreams start in early in Ontario, where kids are on skates as soon as they can stand. Richmond believes the province’s passion for the game and the ratio of players who go on to the NHL are not mutually exclusive.
“There is real good competition all around you when you grow up in Ontario,” Richmond says. “You have a mini-stick in your hand as soon as you an walk and you are inundated with hockey. On Saturday in Canada, you get three games on TV in one day and everyone watches. It’s a great way to live and I really think it helps a player’s development.”
While Richmond agrees that competiveness is a common denominator among players from Ontario, he says it’s difficult to pidgin-hole players by playing style or position.
“You have the (Drew) Doughtys, the (Justin) Williams’, the (Jeff) Carters,” he says. “You have skill players sand tough players, defensemen and forwards, so you get all kinds of players coming out of Ontario.”
Regardless of position or preferred style of play, Futa believes the OHA helps prepare players to perform in intense situations, and under a microscope.
“Players in Ontario are used to high-pressure games,” says Futa. “They have been playing in them every night. It’s great proving ground because you play against high-caliber completion every night. If you can get through that competition, you can probably do it at the next level.”
Futa also believes the unlimited access to great coaching that is available throughout Ontario plays a part the OHA’s ability to send so many players to the NHL.
“When I go into rink in Ontario, whether it’s to watch a buddy’s kid or one of our players, the walls are lined with flyers (for individual coaching sessions or clinics), so if you want to work on your individual skill development, there is always a top-quality coach to work with.”
Futa tapped into all that Ontario expertise while establishing his own management style. He says his strengths as a hockey administrator are a compilation of all the best people he was around in the OHA.
“Not having played in the NHL,” Futa says, “I look back at my time in the OHA and realize it had a tremendous impact on what I am doing now. It’s like a player that takes the good and bad from a lot of different players he has watched or played against. I did that in the OHA, taking a little from a lot of different people. Ontario is such a hockey hotbed that there are great players and great coaches everywhere in the OHA and being around them was helpful to me.”
For Pearson and Toffoli, the ultimate tribute to their Ontario roots came last summer when they returned home with a special guest; the Stanley Cup.
“I took the Stanley Cup back to Kitchener for the day with my family and friends,” Pearson says. “We did a little public thing for the community there, so they could come out and get autographs and pictures. It was fun to look at the little kids faces. I was taking pictures and there was a group of about 20 kids that were maybe 10 years old. They were all in awe of the Cup, and to see that was pretty cool.”
Pearson’s ties to the Kitchener Rangers are so strong that he made it a point to stop by the club’s offices during his whirlwind day with the Cup.
Toffoli’s day with the Cup included two Ontario locations that helped make him the player, and person, he is today.
“I took the Cup back to my house in Scarborough, where I grew up” Toffoli says. “Then I took it to Ottawa, where I live now. It worked out really well and my friends and family really had a good time. It was incredible. A long day, but it was totally worth it.”
The same could be said about coming into your own in the OHA
“It was a tremendous place to start,” Richmond says. “They have great players and great coaches. I am extremely proud of my roots.”
Says Toffoli: “Ontario is a great place for hockey players to grow up. It definitely worked out for me. I wouldn’t do it any differently.”