Bassin welcomes challenge with Rapids

By Ben Leeson, Sudbury Star

Sherry Bassin came east for work, but hockey followed him.

Before becoming the legendary junior hockey executive who turned three OHL franchises into champions and built a pair of gold medal-winning world junior teams, Bassin grew up in the small town of Semans, Sask. and earned degrees in pharmacy and law before moving to Toronto to work in the legal division of Canada’s Food and Drug  Directorate.

Bassin was out walking one day when he spotted a group of children, members of a house-league hockey team, practising on an outdoor rink. Having coached out west, he stopped to show one youngster how to shoot, while parents looked on.

“These parents came over to me after and said, ‘Would you come to a practice?’ ” recalled Bassin, now 77. “I should have asked when and where before I said, ‘Yes, I’ll come to a practice,’ – I didn’t know it was at 6 a.m. on Monday morning. I had to be at work in downtown Toronto.”

But come he did, and ran through a few drills with the kids, before taking his gear off so he could shower, change into his suit and rush off to work. But not before the parents cornered him again.

“They said, ‘We want you to coach the team,’ ” Bassin said. “I said , ‘No, it’s not my style. I don’t come in here to take over. You guys are dedicated parents.’

“They said, ‘We don’t know a damn thing about the game. We’ll manage it, we’ll look after everything.’ ”

Bassin relented, on the condition there be more ice time for training. The practice paid off and the team went from winless to the house league championship.

Bassin won more minor hockey titles as a coach and manager, then took over the Oshawa Generals of the OHA (now OHL) in the late 1970s and led that team to a pair of championships. He joined the Soo Greyhounds at the end of the 1980s for another run of titles, culminating with a Memorial Cup in 1993. More recently, Bassin was the longtime GM and owner of the Erie Otters, capturing another OHL championship in 2002.

Many of Bassin’s teams were struggling when he first took the helm, just like that first house league team.

“I’ve gone to a lot of places where they were in last place,” Bassin said.

So he was undaunted, even eager, when Paul Frustaglio, president of the NOJHL’s French River Rapids came calling earlier this year.

French River, based in Noelville Arena, had won just five games in two seasons and team brass was looking to turn things around, so they reached out to Bassin and he agreed to join the team as director of hockey operations.

“People were having fun running the score up against them,” said Bassin, who travelled from his home in Oshawa to Sudbury last weekend for French River’s spring tryout camp.

“Paul called me and said, ‘Will you help us out with the team?’ Even though I have so many things going, I’ve still got a feel for hockey, I’ve still got a feel for the North. It’s a small town and the community would love their team, especially if it was competitive. I told them I wouldn’t come and help them, though, unless they hired a good coach, and they did.”

That coach was Ken Strong, longtime bench boss for the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, who developed OHL stars and current NHLers including Connor McDavid, Ryan Strome and Sam Bennett.

“I’ve known Kenny since he played in Peterborough and he’s got great experience coaching and developing kids,” Bassin said. “Hopefully, we can get some players from some of the OHL teams we can develop and play the heck out of.

“I’m very interested, too, that they’re good young men off the ice. That has always been an issue with me. I called some kids that I know who need to develop, I’ll call some others and watch Kenny Strong develop them.

“The biggest part of the appeal was small town, major challenge – lots of people said, ‘What are you doing, you’re not going to get players,’ and I don’t like those things said to me. I never have liked it. I never respected that.”

For Strong, the tryouts were only a first step towards placing a competitive club in Noelville for 2017-18.

“It’s more or less to get our name out here and show we mean business,” Strong said. “For Sherry and I, both coming out of the Toronto area or Oshawa for him, it’s a long commute and it’s a big commitment, but we’re willing to make it and when we step into something, we do it with 100 per cent commitment and that’s the kind of statement we wanted to make this weekend. We’ll have another camp and track some more players, and we’re going to build.

“We’re going to have a young team and I want guys who have a lot of heart and I’m looking for hockey sense, because I’m very technical and I teach the game.

“I can guarantee you we won’t be last place.”

Like Bassin, Strong was attracted by the challenge of rebuilding a struggling squad.

“I have had nothing but winning teams and I have had the privilege of developing some pretty big names,” Strong said. “They went from me over to Sherry, the McDavids and Connor Brown and the Stromes and so on, but this is a new adventure, a small town, and I came up here and I loved it. I thought let’s get away from the rat race in Toronto where it’s strictly hockey here.

“I’m hoping, with Sherry, to really make a statement here, to develop kids and prepare them for the next level.”