All you have to do to see the particular challenges of running a junior hockey team is stand in the doorway of the dressing room. As Ottawa 67s players start to trickle in for a morning practice in mid-February, they all have that loose-jointed strut of the high school jock, but that’s where the sameness ends.
Like all CHL teams, this roster ranges in age from 16 to 20. Some of them are still kids, basically, and their faces show it—cheeks and chins that are perfectly smooth and a tiny bit pudgy, as though someone Photoshopped the head of a Grade 1 class photo onto the body of a hockey player. Others look like they belong to a different species, as stubbly and sinewy and grizzled as construction workers.
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Under the surface, there are wildly different triumphs and anxieties, too. Some of these rookies will be crushed when they see the scratch list for tonight’s game; others are just thrilled to be here and happy to wait their turn.
For the 18-year-olds, their NHL Draft year will be one long job interview in which they’ll pray not to be injured before they have a chance to make a case for themselves. Some of the overagers will just be coming to terms with the fact that the NHL isn’t going to be their destination; this will come out in jokes that aren’t really jokes about going to university next year. Others will ignore the memos from the league asking for contact info the league can pass along to schools, refusing to talk to anyone about collegiate hockey until the season is over.
Junior hockey is a strange, intense waiting room—a real workplace that also functions a little like a boarding school, where the employees are hired as children and retire as men. It’s a place where teenagers who have been the best player on every team growing up have to come to grips with the gap between what they dreamed and the real life they’re going to live, a decade or more before most of us have to face that.
Orbiting around the young players is a group of adults who make the show run. They do more with fewer resources than an NHL team would ever dream of, often because they simply fell in love with the whole thing and can’t walk away. Here’s what a junior hockey team looks like and how it functions, viewed from the inside.
Part 2: Academic Advisor Eileen Duffin
The texts often come early in the morning. One guy is “freaking out” because he can’t find his car keys and a bunch of others need a ride to class. On another day, someone else writes to moan about a sore throat. Their parents are hundreds of kilometres away, so “Mrs. D”—Eileen Duffin, the academic advisor, billet coordinator and all-round den mother for the Ottawa 67’s—swings into action.
She calms the owner of the lost car keys and picks up the stranded players, then realizes no one has eaten breakfast because they were preoccupied with the car key search. She picks up a giant sack of bagels and a tub of cream cheese, and they scarf down breakfast before heading to class, leaving her car confettied with sesame seeds.
Another time, she heads to school with cough syrup—she knows from consulting with the team trainer that Buckley’s doesn’t contain any ingredients that could get the players into trouble with urine screening—and dosage spoons for three different boys. One of them is practically gagging into a snowbank after the first greasy teaspoon, begging her not to administer the rest of it. But if he can’t take the medicine, he might be too sick for afternoon practice, Duffin reminds him; he chokes back the second teaspoon.
Duffin visits another player who’s out with a concussion and she notices he’s holding his neck stiffly, so she returns with a microwaveable heating pad from her house. The next morning, another text: his neck feels much better—thanks, Mrs. D.
“They are kids, and the bottom line is they are somebody’s children, and I want them to be taken care of like if this was my son,” Duffin says. This is what it’s like to play surrogate mother for two dozen teenagers living away from home and trying to make it in junior hockey.
Duffin’s days are a mad blur of teacher consultations, check-ins with parents back home and helping “the boys” with anything under the sun they might need. She also finds time to be the designated baker of banana bread. One recent Friday afternoon, she blustered cheerily into the coaches’ office with an armful of bags and books, then began handing out loaves. Head coach Jeff Brown sweetly asked, “No chocolate chips?” before laughing at his own entitlement.
This job began for Duffin five years ago, when she was about to retire after three decades of high school teaching, but a former colleague wheedled her into joining her as an academic advisor with the 67’s. “About two months into it, I said, ‘Okay, I’m hooked,’” Duffin says (she now does the job solo).
The players who are still completing high school attend the private Blyth Academy, which offers a condensed and flexible schedule. The way Duffin sees it, she’s employed by the team, but she really works as an advocate for the players and their parents—and if schoolwork starts to slide, someone is getting a serious sit-down at a dining room table, just like they would at home.
“They aren’t allowed to not get through all their courses, and they do get all their credits unless something extraordinary happens,” she says. “And it hasn’t happened yet.” (Sometimes, a player will earnestly ask for a chat about schoolwork when what he really wants is for Duffin to take him out for lunch. She is wise to this tactic, but rolls with it.)
The older players who are finished school or working on university courses have it a bit lighter, but for the high school students, junior hockey life amounts to more than a full workday: they’re at school for 8:30 a.m. and go directly to the arena from school for 2:30 p.m. practice every day, and they usually don’t get out of the rink until 6:00. “At the end of the day, you’re pretty tired. There’s not much else you can do except hang out, watch TV, eat and go to bed,” says winger Adam Craievich.
Winger Craievich has four goals and 15 points this season. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
Duffin works particularly closely with players in their first two years in the OHL, helping them adjust to being away from home and learning to juggle everything. She warns parents that the first report cards of rookie year are the roughest, but things always improve once everyone settles in. She sometimes gets phone calls from parents asking how their sons are really feeling, when they aren’t sure what to make of a call home that sounds a little melancholy. Duffin sees the players nearly every day, so she can tell parents if their son is in fact doing just fine or if he needs a bit of a boost.
Coordinating billet placements is a new part of her job this season. Duffin lives close to the Blyth Academy, and she’s managed to entreat several neighbours to take in players. “Part is it is I guess people feel they owe me favours, but I hate to think that’s why they do it,” she says, chuckling.
It works well to have lots of the players living near each other, as the veterans with cars drive the rookies around. There are also social logistics Duffin likes to consider—do you place two first-round draft picks in the same house or on the same street, or is that inviting too much competition?
“You know all the players, so if there’s an issue at school or if there’s an issue with billeting, you tend to hear about it quickly,” she says. “They’re few and far between, the issues, but they can crop up.”
And Duffin has noticed one clear trend: by Christmas each season, when the players talk about returning to Ottawa after a break in their hometowns, they always say they’re going “home.”