By Luke Fox in London, Ont. | Illustration by Kagan McLeod
By Luke Fox in London, Ont. | Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Brad Ostrom spent nearly 50 years coaching minor hockey, and played a key role in the development of some of London's best. Weeks before his death, he reflected on the lessons of a life given to the game.

The hockey coach’s ball cap and glasses are all askew. His back is flat against the cold, hard ice in a rink somewhere in London, Ont. It’s autumn; a new season has arrived. He has fallen and is lying still, trapped in that moment where you swear you’re hurt but haven’t yet figured out where or how severely.

The year is 2005, and Ontario’s governing body of minor hockey has yet to mandate that coaches strap on a helmet before they take the ice and run kids through pylons. So Brad Ostrom, who’d been skating backwards keeping an eye on young Stevie Sanza’s one-timer just moments earlier, is now taking in the arena ceiling in an achy daze, having flipped ass-over-teakettle and landed with a crack. Once he gathers himself a bit there’s zero doubt in his mind he’s concussed.

That’s when the grinning face of his latest 14-year-old star centre, Nazem Kadri, comes into view hovering above and interrupts Ostrom’s view of the spinning stars and tweety birds. “Come on, Coach. Don’t be a pussy,” Kadri chirps, then glides over to the bench.

Ostrom knows he has to climb to his blades despite the fog, pain be damned. “You will regret that,” Ostrom tells Kadri when he arrives at the bench, reminding the kid who’s boss. “You cannot stay down this season. I got up, so you better get up.”

That Kadri chirped his coach as a 14-year-old might not shock too many NHL fans. That he numbered among Ostrom's toughest players shouldn't surprise either.

Brad Ostrom was finding it difficult to get up off the couch. Hockey season was around the corner, and for the first time in more than 40 years the lifelong coach wouldn’t — couldn’t.

For decades, Ostrom brimmed with the kind of energy that permits a man to devote more than 15 hours a week on top of his full-time accounting career to developing local hockey talent, to inventing drills and securing ice time, to carefully selecting tournaments and booking the hotel rooms, to instilling life lessons and to navigating the helicopter parents — oh, the parents — and increasingly intrusive executive committees.

But Ostrom hadn’t stepped on a sheet of ice since November. His bag of gear — skates, gloves, that now-mandated helmet — had been stolen from his car, parked outside his subdivision home in Komoka, a farm town just a slapshot west of London. He could’ve bought new stuff, but why bother? He coached the remainder of 2018–19, his final season, from the bench.

Esophageal cancer feels like a fiery medicine ball in your chest. Eating solid foods either hurts or chokes you. If it’s not indigestion, it’s heartburn. If it’s not coughing, it’s vomiting. Weight loss is rapid and ravaging. Quality of life drops off a cliff. The survival rate, if detected early, is one of the worst among cancers: 19 per cent.

“You never want to see anyone go, especially a good man like that who helped so many people around him and touched so many people around him.”

Ostrom was supposed to be at the rink that morning, a scorching August beauty. He wanted to introduce a visitor to Drew Doughty, Logan Couture, Dylan DeMelo and Josh Brown — NHLers he helped develop, kids he did his part to mould into grown-ups. The local pros were home for the summer, competing in some high-pace shinny and readying for the season at the Komoka Wellness Centre, a few blocks from Ostrom’s home. He wanted to be with them, even if only to sit and watch, but chemotherapy had rendered the coach too weak to get off the couch let alone out the door. Ostrom’s pajamas hung off his rail-thin frame like he’d borrowed them from a man twice his size. His moustache, so neatly trimmed in all the old photo albums he leafed through, had grown into a beard, wispy and grey. “It sucks that things like that have to happen,” Doughty said later at the rink, disappointed that Ostrom couldn’t show. “It’s so sad, I don’t know what to say. You never want to see anyone go, [especially] a good man like that who helped so many people around him and touched so many people around him.”

Ostrom’s wife, Becky, ready to whip up bacon-and-tomato sandwiches for lunch, feared he might not be around to celebrate his 67th birthday in October. Ostrom’s son, Sean, said Dad had been encouraging him to take home some of the coach’s memorabilia.

Against the low hum of the central air conditioning and chatter from the flatscreen opposite him, the dying coach would, for nearly two hours on this August morning, push lively stories and opinions out through a voice so hoarse it sometimes dips to a whisper. He’d ratchet up the volume to bark at Sean, sitting nearby, to go into the basement and fetch another stat sheet or team photo or printed thank-you email from a former player. And the voice — scratchy and pained — would also intensify when Ostrom emphasized a point or shared a lesson, one of the many hard-earned pieces of wisdom he’d discovered during his decades in the game — answers to the questions that matter.

Like, why? Why pour a lifetime of free weekends into a sport you’re not playing, when your child isn’t even on the team?

“The kids,” Ostrom said. “Kids are just fun. Just watching them improve. Watching them be good teammates. And in most cases, watching them be much more mature than their parents. You laugh at the kids. They joke around and carry on. They do dumb stuff, too.”

“To put that much time in, without any of his own kids on the team, that just shows a lot about the kind of person he was.”

There on the living room couch that day in August, Ostrom held his hand low to indicate where one of his peewees began the previous season, then stretched it high to where the youngster was as the summer drew to an end. It was that development that meant the world to the coach — how his players progressed under his guidance and the things they went on to accomplish after he let them go.

Unfortunately, Brad Ostrom would never see that last group of players grow up. On Sept. 9, he passed away surrounded by family. Ostrom’s death is a huge loss for the London-Middlesex community, and for all of minor hockey — its spirit, its purpose, and the values that slip further away with every dad who gives his kid the extra shift, every specialist who tries to milk families through expensive summer skates, and every coach who lets his 12-year-olds run up the score to pad their stats. A key figure in the lives of many of London’s most famous sons, Ostrom was also the consummate role player, firm in his calling, which was turning boys into young men, and transforming individuals into a team.

Ostrom moved Doughty from forward back to D, a decision that's worked out well for the Kings all-star

Fresh off a mid-August shinny game, a hockey bag slung over his shoulder, Drew Doughty stood in Komoka’s arena lobby. The two-time Stanley Cup and Olympic champion had planted himself on that same couch in the Ostroms’ living room a few days before I did, and at the arena he stressed how it was more important than ever that he pay a visit to his favourite coach. Doughty repaid that debt annually by surprising Ostrom’s latest batch of teenagers, signing autographs and posing for photos.

Doughty is arguably Ostrom’s greatest success story. Sure, the coach promoted more than 100 players to the Ontario Hockey League and dozens to pro leagues across the world, but Doughty brought the Cup home to London and invited Ostrom to see its gleam, a quiet acknowledgement of four decades of selflessness. “That’s nuts. That’s nuts,” Doughty said, shaking his head. “To put that much time in, without any of his own kids on the team, that just shows a lot about the kind of person he [was].”

For the final summer, Doughty and Ostrom sat and talked, as they had done once or twice every off-season. They watched highlights. They shared memories from that ’01 Junior Knights squad that won everything in the province. “We had a great time, a great chat. It was great to see him,” Doughty said. “He obviously wasn’t in the same spirits he’s normally in because [he was] feeling sick, but we were talking about the Maple Leafs, talking about old times in AAA, talking about guys I played with that he was coaching… he remembered every one of those players by name. He remembered their tendencies, remembered how they act. It’s crazy he [could] remember that many guys. I can’t remember yesterday.”

Many yesterdays ago, the 2016 Norris Trophy winner was a goal-hungry forward. Ostrom saw a 12-year-old miscast. “He put me back on D. At first, I wasn’t too fond of the idea,” Doughty said. “I loved scoring goals and making plays, but once I realized I could do the same thing from defence, I was ready to take on that challenge. He just said ‘Mike Van Ryn.’ Brad switched [Van Ryn] from forward to D and he made the NHL, so that sold me on it.

“What a great decision it was for Brad to put me back there. I wouldn’t have it any other way now.”

Young Doughty was what Ostrom called a “no-brainer.” He filed Couture and Kadri into that same category. Doughty had oodles of skill and saw openings and patterns on the ice other kids missed, but he needed a carrot to sprint. “He was a little lazy. That’s probably why he played goal in soccer. He wasn’t the hardest-working guy out there — at all. But he had a really, really big compete level. If you went out and beat somebody 10–0, he had nothin’ — no goals, no assists, might be a plus-1,” Ostrom said. “But if you played the Toronto Marlies and you won 3–2, he’d have two goals and an assist. He really competed hard.

“Most of them play the same way when they’re young as they do once they get to the NHL. Like Logan: He’s always been a 200-foot player. Worked his butt off. Always around it. The greatest battle I ever had with him was getting him to shoot the puck. He was too generous.”

Doughty, seen here with Sean and Brad, visited Ostrom every off-season, meeting his old coach's latest charges, taking pictures and signing autographs

When an 11-year-old Couture moved to London from rival Elgin-Middlesex, Chiefs’ country to Knights’ country, Ostrom’s reputation preceded him. “The minor-hockey community [in London] sees him almost the way the junior-hockey community sees Brian Kilrea in the Ottawa area,” said Couture, who graduated from the Ostrom school to tear up the OHL as a 12th-overall pick with the 67’s. “[He’s] someone who coached so many players who’ve gone on to do successful things in life, not only as hockey players but other jobs as well. You put him on that pedestal.”

What Couture most remembered from his time on Ostrom’s team, besides the Doughty switch (“He saw that in Drew before anyone else did”), were the hockey cards. In an effort to track deeper statistics and keep the parents busy in the stands, Ostrom assigned moms and dads the task of analytics. One would be charged with tracking blocks, another plus/minus, another shots, and another with the club’s most prized stat: the pass.

A Junior Knights goal-getter was never rewarded with hockey cards in the winning dressing room, but the boy who set him up was. And the player with the most completed passes was the real hero. He might get a whole pack or a signed photo from one of the coach’s accomplished alumni. In the binders of volunteer-generated stats in Ostrom’s basement, you could see that Doughty had a team-high 1,232 passes in his first season at D. “At that age, everyone wants to score. Everyone wants to get points, right? That’s how you feel you contributed to the win. He taught everyone it’s not just goal scorers that help teams win hockey games. Even from a young age, that stuck with me,” Couture said. “It’s stayed with me through to this day in the NHL.”

“He taught everyone it’s not just goal scorers that help teams win hockey games. It’s stayed with me through to this day in the NHL.”

At the outset of each season, Ostrom handed out a green binder to each family containing 150 pages that detailed his coaching philosophy, a fundraising strategy, his team rules, the particulars of his forecheck and defensive systems and diagrams of drills. Half of the drills were Ostrom originals. (Ostrom said he once caught Dale Hunter in the stands taking notes.) The other half were borrowed from others but tweaked and expanded after years of tinkering. “If the parents are literate, they shouldn’t have any questions,” Ostrom said.

Like Doughty, Florida Panthers defenceman Josh Brown was a forward until Ostrom sunk his teeth into him in Grade 7. “He had a reputation for being pretty hard on the guys, and a lot of teams had a big upheaval when he got them because he wanted to give new kids a chance. So we were all a little nervous [coming into the 2006–07 season],” Brown recalled.

Brown and his teammates initially met Ostrom’s terseness with eye rolls, but that disdain soon morphed into admiration. “We were bratty little kids at that point. So maybe he yells at you and you yell back — but then you’re skating. You learn pretty fast not to talk back. There was definitely a level of respect. We all knew who he was coming in. He was one of the premier coaches of AAA, and you knew the year you were going to have him,” said Brown, now a towering six-foot-five, 215-pound 25-year-old. “He coached the right age for what he took on. We were all getting a little older. We could take the heat a little more. It was lessons for life. Reach down a little bit more than you think you can, and there’s a reward at the end. He was that first coach for all of us who showed us what junior and what hockey is going to be like in the future.”

The Knights beat the Chiefs for the area championship that season, then trumped all the top teams in North America to hoist the Compuware Honeybaked Invitational trophy. “[My age group] had never won that big of a tournament before. We were rated top-10 in North America with Brad as our coach. I know it’s only minor hockey, but it felt like this big accomplishment. Our team just took this other step with him as our coach,” Brown said. “His big quote was, ‘If I’m not yelling at you, I don’t care.’ So when he was yelling at me, I at least knew he cared and wanted me to get better … [and] he obviously saw something in me I didn’t see.”

Same goes for Ottawa Senators defenceman Dylan DeMelo, for whom Ostrom fought to get the OHL’s attention. “Skill you can teach,” asserted Ostrom, who also doubled as a scout for the London Knights for a handful of years. He believed it was the kid with heart and spark that you needed to spot — and push.

Ostrom remembered sitting in restaurant with DeMelo’s dad, Tony, and pulling out the Jr. Knights stat sheet. “Jeez, he got 25 goals this year. Not bad, eh?” Tony beamed.

“Yeah. And he only showed up for half the games,” Ostrom shot back, a challenge for DeMelo to reach his potential. DeMelo responded well to the jolt and later raved about the coach’s tough-love tack.

Ostrom went to bat for DeMelo and all his unrealized potential hard against a room full of OHL scouts pushing for another kid. The endorsement was proven out by history; DeMelo was the one of the two to make the NHL. Ostrom sounded even more proud to see DeMelo and Brown succeed than the no-brainers.

“The first month, September, on the ice every day, just working your tail off. No shortcuts. A lot of discipline,” DeMelo said, describing life under Ostrom. “But it was something that was vital for me. At 13, you don’t really know how hard you have to work. But when you come to the rink and you have order and you have discipline like that, I think it was great for my development.”

Couture stands alongside Doughty and Kadri as players whose skill made each a "no-brainer," Ostrom said.

As a youngster growing up in Chatham, Ont., Ostrom and his two brothers played sports relentlessly. Their father was heavily involved in minor hockey and held sway in how the community chose its coaches. “Dad coached Fergie Jenkins,” the Baseball Hall of Famer and Harlem Globetrotter, Ostrom said. “That was my first hockey memento: I had a hockey sweater with Fergie’s blood on it.”

The Ostroms moved to London in 1965, the city where Brad would immerse himself in the politics of amateur hockey. “They weren’t as bad then,” he said. He started coaching Red Circle, a low-fee, non-profit league that favours equality over competitiveness, in the early ’70s. “The kids were always No. 1 there. There wasn’t too much crap going on,” he said.

A couple years running inexpensive summer hockey circuits, making just enough to cover costs, got Ostrom noticed by London’s minor hockey honchos, who were in the process of amalgamating the city’s two AAA clubs, the Sabres and Sharks (divided by the Thames River). In those days, 25 candidates would apply for every significant coaching gig. “Whereas today you’d be lucky if you got three,” said Ostrom, citing the weighty time commitment, the sniping parents and the gauntlet of league-mandated courses as hurdles. “That part [the red-tape and roadblocks to being a certified to coach] they don’t get because they’re all in Toronto sitting at an office. They’re not out at the rinks.”

To Ostrom’s surprise, he got the Atom gig. “You were the perfect choice,” they told him. “You didn’t coach Jets, you didn’t coach Sabres, you were neutral. You were the guy.”

When he began coaching, he had no assistants — the role had yet to be invented. It was only Ostrom and his brood. “And we smoked on the bench. Some kid pissed you off? You butt your cigarette out on his helmet,” he said. “It wasn’t high-tech hockey. There was one guy. Now I got three guys with me and I wonder how the hell I did it back then.”

Despite the coach’s throwback demeanour and old-school values, Kadri called Ostrom “ahead of his time” for his dual understanding of tactics and personalities, for his practising with purpose. “Brad always took it serious. He knew exactly what he was doing,” Kadri said. “He understood how the game worked and where it was going. He was known as one of those coaches who might be able to get you to the next level. He always prepared.”

Ostrom (front row, centre), in 1972, with the first team he coached

As firm and idealistic as Ostrom was, his bench presence was a calm and calculated one. During one final series, he remembered an opposing coach putting a shadow on London’s top scorer game after game. Ostrom smartly countered by instructing his star to become a shadow as well, following their best player around the ice. “Idiot,” Ostrom said. “It gave us a 4-on-3 all series.”

Ostrom’s team won — because of course they did.

Swallowed by his sofa, Ostrom pulled out a printed email he’d saved from a former player, Sam Grey, who went on to a small college career in the U.S. Grey wrote him back in 2008. It ended:

By the way, if you sometimes wonder if all the work is still worth it, I’d just like you to know the effect you had on me as a coach. Last year with all the draft hype and the scouts and all the pressure, none of that seemed to bother me. But when my dad would tell me before a game, “Ostrom said he’s going to come watch,” I felt I had to play good, almost as if I needed to prove to you that I would take checks to make plays, be a team player, and all those other things you drilled into our team 4 (?) years ago. I don’t really know how to explain it, but it is something beyond respect. I never really got a chance to say thank you, so here it is.

Thank you,
Sam Grey

Ostrom's 2001 Junior Knights squad won everything in the province — the type of success that inspired his players to have a deeper faith in themselves and their abilities

To Ostrom, there was no grand secret to group success, to his decades-long list of tournament and league finals and championships. The recipe was two ingredients long: “Work hard. Be a good teammate.”

This was a hockey lifer who still brushed his hand over a Ted Lindsay autograph on a tattered banquet program with reverence and spoke of rugged Basil McRae — an exec, scout, coach and player who thrice topped 350 PIMs with the North Stars — like a deity. Ostrom saw today’s players and parents as more entitled and less accountable than at any other point in his time as a coach. But, though he could resist the world changing around him and did (for a stretch, he even demanded his players use wood instead of the composite sticks they brought to tryouts) Ostrom was unable to stop the inevitable.

He was also too smart to write-off an entire generation, and could still provide plenty of examples of the team-first toughness that never failed to inspire him. Like, the would-be captain of his final brood, who arrived for a tryout last fall with his arm in a cast. Ostrom told him he couldn’t go on the ice like that, so the boy walked into the parking lot, sawed off the cast and tried out. “Tough kid. And a good kid in the room,” Ostrom said.

“Work hard. Be a good teammate.”

As an advocate of shut-up-and-play hockey, it wasn’t hard to imagine Ostrom rubbing some parents the wrong way. He didn’t want to hear about your child’s dwindling ice time or your young goalie assuming it was his night to play. (“But if Granny’s in town, let me know,” he added.) The stands were made for spectating in his view. “Winning cures pretty much everything,” Ostrom said. He may have uncovered the antidote but still didn’t like the taste. “It shouldn’t come down to that, but that’s what it comes down to almost all the time.”

Before the members of the final Ostrom team went their separate ways and enrolled in their expensive summer camps, the coach handed out a questionnaire to the families, one last forum for moms and dads to voice their critiques or express their gratitude.

On that sheet was one space for the kids to write their own responses.

The question read: Would you like to play for this coach again?

“Despite all the parent issues,” Ostrom said, “17 out of 17 kids said yes.”

Ostrom believed in a tough, no-excuses brand of hockey he felt he had to fight harder to protect with each passing season

On the subject of young Nazem Kadri and his unique relationship with old Brad Ostrom, Sean piped up to join the living room conversation. “He was scared of ya,” Sean began. “He had to have a coach tell him what to do. If he had any rope … that’s why Babcock was good for him. People on the outside may look and say Babcock’s a jerk, but he got Naz to play the way he needed to play.”

Yes, Brad admitted, he’d seen other coaches struggle to understand how to reach Kadri. “He’s just more of a free spirit, a creative type of guy. He just didn’t know when to stop being creative. Sometimes you just have to get the puck in deep and make the smart play. But nobody was tougher.”

There were a few occasions during that winter Ostrom banged his head and Kadri called his coach out that Kadri wanted to stay down. (“I remember him falling, but I don’t remember exactly what I said to him. I wanna say I was joking around with him,” Kadri said. “We had that kind of relationship.”) But Naz had run his mouth, and by God, Ostrom was going to hold the kid accountable.

In the finals that season, Kadri slammed so hard into the boards, he separated his shoulder. Still, his coach wasn’t about to rush out and help the player to his feet. “The thing was hanging down to the ice almost, but he got up from the far corner and skated to the bench,” Ostrom said. “He had to get up.”

That injury Kadri remembered vividly. “I was rushed to the hospital right afterwards, but I got myself up off the ice and skated off on my own will. I knew that was something he really appreciated about me — that relentless attitude. I had that mentality, and Brad knew that. He knew I had that toughness.”

Brad Ostrom knew the easy way wasn’t always the right way, the honest way.

“He was hard on you, but he was trying to push the right buttons and propel you in the right direction,” Kadri said. “I like that style of coaching.”

Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Kagan McLeod; Courtesy of the Ostrom family; Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images; Courtesy of the Ostrom family; Ezra Shaw/Getty Images; Courtesy of the Ostrom family (3).