When the French River Rapids open the NOJHL season at home on Sept. 11, it’ll be a homecoming for a local hockey hero.
“It’ll probably be no different than my first game ever playing in the NHL,” said former big-leaguer Moe Mantha, Jr., who will serve as the Rapids’ general manager and head coach. “(I) was a boy growing up, playing against the Maple Leafs and people were watching that, now I come home and I’m giving back.
“I’ve always been a person who gives back to the community, whether that be different charity work, and I’m back trying to help the local boys make their dreams a reality, like I went through, in the small town of Sturgeon Falls.”
The Rapids will play out of Noelville, roughly a half-hour drive from Sturgeon Falls, where Mantha has maintained a home near the golf course his parents own. He played in 673 NHL games, and has coached in the AHL, OHL and NAHL, just to name a few.
Mantha could have went anywhere, could have coached anyone, but he wanted to come back home.
“Every year, I’ve always come home in the summer times and then go down south in the winter times to do my coaching,” said Mantha, 54. “We have a family business up north here in Sturgeon Falls, and as we get older, age, there was a feeling of wanting to come home, learn the business and help in the winter time with shovelling snow around this place.”
“I came home and wanted to stay in hockey,” Mantha added. “I phoned certain people in various organizations, looking to help out, and Allan Donnan, the owner of the (Rapids), got wind that I was coming home, so he and I spoke, I told him I wanted to come home, do some snow plowing and go on Lake Nipissing and try to find some stupid fish called pickerel and freeze my butt off, and he said, ‘Well, what about this idea?’ I knew it was an opportunity to get some coaching and stay home.”
The Rapids have signed players from Sturgeon Falls, Sudbury, North Bay, Ottawa, Toronto and the United States.
“I think a lot of people are looking for an opportunity where it’s going to be a good organization, it’s going to be done the right way, and plus, I’m not a youth coach, I’m a pro coach,” Mantha said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve got experience.
“There’s a lot of boys from the North that go down south or leave their home because they don’t have the opportunity to be in their hometown, they gotta go play somewhere else if they want to play junior hockey. So, this is a nice opportunity for the boys to play hockey and, in the meantime, get their education.”
The Rapids open main camp today and will not play any exhibition games.
“My goal here was to, when we start on this Wednesday, it’s not a training camp,” Mantha said. “(All of our) players are signed, they’ve committed. They wanted to be (here), wanted to be coached and that’s the type of players I want. We’re not bringing anyone else in. We’ll work on building our team, our system of play, but we’ll also work on team bonding.”
When asked what it would take for the Rapids to have a successful season, Mantha mentioned his team has already accomplished quite a bit.
“I think just bringing hockey home is success right now,” he said. “It’s a good brand, a good league, it’s a well established league and to bring that to the community, giving the boys a chance to play in this type of league “¦ it’s already a success. It’s up to our team to take to the next level. I’m just hoping we have a good team, put in a lot of effort and compete every night. When you think of French River, it’s a hard-working town. It’s not a big metropolitan city, it’s people that get up every morning and go to work, they come home and they put in long hours of work. It’s a hard-working community and we’ll have to establish that as a team, that we’re bringing our lunch buckets to work, and we’ll compete hard.”
Mantha joked about what his message to his team will be today.
“If anyone has seen the movie, Scent of a Woman, there’s a line in there saying, ‘I’ve been around, so you’re not fooling me’. I’ve been there as a player and I’ve spent (many) years under pro contracts as a coach. I’ve coached the U.S.A. Hockey National Team Development Program, had a stint with Windsor Spitfires, and in the last couple years of years up in Flint, Mich., in the North American Hockey League, so I’ll be opening up with that line Wednesday night.”