by Randy Pascal
With just five wins to show for a total of 110 NOJHL (Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League) regular season games over the course of the past two years, the French River Rapids are fully aware of the mountain they have to climb, just to achieve respectability.
Give owner Paul Frustaglia credit, however. He is not one to sit idly by. In bringing back well established GTA coach Ken Strong for another campaign, and adding colourful and well-connected Sherry Bassin to the mix, the Rapids have easily given themselves far more “street cred” heading into year three.
Both gentlemen were on hand last weekend, as the French River administration welcomed returnees and potential new prospects to a spring camp at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex in Sudbury.
A 40 goal scorer with the Peterborough Petes (1982-83) who would play in a small handful of NHL games before enjoying a lengthy and highly successful career in Austria (he would score more than 300 goals in nine seasons), Strong would lead three minor midget teams to OHL Cup championships before stepping in to help out the Rapids late in the 2016-2017 schedule.
“I came back as a favour to Paul (Frustaglia),” said Strong. But I really liked it up here. I want to see, with Sherry, if we can build this team.” The early signs would suggest that the years of coaching that Strong has accumulated have left him well prepared to tackle this particular challenge, and to do some with a clear-cut vision in mind.
“I teach more of a European skill game,” said Strong. “I’m trying to be more new school. I don’t believe in the trap – I believe in creativity. I want them to have fun playing the game.” In that sense, he is not naive to the realities of trying to maintain the attention of his players, even as the losses continue to mount.
“The one attribute of my coaching is being able to get the most out of a player,” said Strong. “It comes down to communication and a little mutual respect. These were a great bunch of kids. They just crave attention, they want to be better. I try and make it a little bit of fun for them. On a personal level, I get a little bit of a relationship with the kids, so hopefully, they step out of their comfort zone.”
Armed with a thorough knowledge of the talent that exists in the Southern Ontario basin, Strong argued that he need not have a team of imports to build competitiveness in French River. “We would like to give back to the community, see northern hockey really excel,” he said. “There’s a lot of good hockey players in Toronto, but up here, there is too, and I don’t think they get the attention they deserve. I’m really impressed with some of these young kids.”
The only man ever to guide three different teams to Memorial Cup appearances, Bassin does not pull a whole lot of punches in describing the attraction that would pull the long-time OHL General Manager back into the junior hockey fold. “I’m from a small town in northern Saskatchewan (Semans), and this (French River) was a small town team, gettin hell beat out of them all of the time,” said Bassin.
“Yes, it’s a challenge, but everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been told that. I’ve taken a look at this team – they don’t get beat, they get “whomped”, and that’s not fun. I don’t like beating teams like that and I don’t like losing like that. We’ve got to give them a team that people are proud to come out and cheer for. A small town really loves their team, not everyone realizes that.”
Fully confident in the coaching acumen of Ken Strong, Bassin sees the largest issue being one that lies in attracting character and quality individuals to the Rapids. “The first thing is that the kids have to understand that its a privilege to play,” he said. “There’s no entitlement here. The idea for us is to make them better players, better people, especially better people.”