It’s early in the season and another losing, injury filled month for Sherry Bassin’s Erie Otters and time for the longtime junior hockey executive to make a critical decision about the team’s future.
Hang tough with a group of hard-working Ontario Hockey League players coming off a 40-win season, or sell off a number of assets and reload?
If you know Bassin, or just a fraction of his 30-plus year history in the league, he has a knack for getting teams back on their feet and building a winning program.
So, the Otters’ 72-year-old general manager and majority owner went to work on Oct. 31 with his team in a 2-12 funk, dealing centre Brett Thompson to the Sarnia Sting for a 2012 third-round draft pick and a second-rounder in 2013.
Five trades followed leading up to the Jan. 10 OHL trade deadline with Bassin accumulating nine picks and four players in the process. Six of those picks will be made in 2014 and beyond.
“We had some real serious injuries and made a decision to go with a real young team,” Bassin said in a telephone conversation from his Pennsylvania office. “It’s just hard to watch what you’re going through. When you’re playing five, six 16-year-olds at a time and 14 rookies, it’s tough.”
The Otters occupied last place in the OHL and Canadian Hockey League at 6-37-4 through Jan. 29, putting them on track to shatter the 16-year-old franchise’s single-season record of futility (15 wins in 2006-07) and on pace for one of the worst marks in the OHL’s 36-year modern era.
A positive outlook to the season — Erie’s 40 victories a year ago was its most productive season since 2002 — took a dramatic turn with a series of injuries to top players.
It started in September when defenceman Adam Pelech, who’s in his National Hockey League draft year, fractured his wrist. Left-winger Connor Crisp (shoulder surgery), top centre Mike Cazzola (fractured hand) and Thompson (flu, initially feared to be mononucleosis) also went down, followed by defencemen Brett Cook (bruised knee ligament) and Kris Grant (concussion).
“We’ve had 13 or 15 [injuries],” Bassin said, “but excuses only satisfy those who make them. When we got into that [losing] spiral that’s when I said, ‘Hey, let’s be realistic [about our prospects for this season].’
“Now that we’ve chosen this route with these young people, how soon are they going to be ready to win? That’s what we have to evaluate. Who’s going to be part of it? We’ve got some good people in our system, so we really have to do some self-analysis here. … What am I doing to make this better? Is it enough?
It was enough in the late 1980s when Bassin ran the show in Oshawa, Ont., where he guided the Generals to first place in the Leyden Division with a 49-win, 101-point campaign in ’87. They fell to fifth the next season with 67 points, only to have Bassin build things back up.
“I said, “Boys, we’re gonna strip ’er down,’” Bassin said of the rebuilding process. “It’s never fun, but if you have the right vision and providing you do the right things, you get pretty good results, in time, but it doesn’t feel like that when you’re going through it.”
In each of the next three seasons, the Generals finished no worse than second in the division, highlighted by OHL and Memorial Cup championships in ’90 after Bassin left mid-season to save the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds program.
With the ‘Hounds in the midst of a second straight losing campaign and up for sale, Bassin was able to persuade his fellow OHL governors to change a rule that prohibited teams from trading their first-round selections.
He then used his connections in Oshawa, moving highly touted forward Eric Lindros to the Generals for right-wingers Mike DeCoff and Jason Denomme along with goalie Mike Lenarduzzi, two second-round picks in ’90 and ’91, and $80,000.
“He made the Lindros trade and built that [Greyhounds] team into three championship teams,” Brampton Battalion head coach and director of hockey operations Stan Butler said of Bassin, referring to the Soo’s OHL titles in 1991 and ’92 and Memorial Cup victory in ’93.
“He’s a guy that when he puts his mind to something, I think his peers around the league feel there’s a very good chance that he’s going to be able to pull it off.”
In Erie, Bassin said, feedback from the new players has been positive, noting centre Dane Fox and defenceman Troy Donnay — formerly of the London Knights — “couldn’t say enough” about Otters bench boss Robbie Ftorek, who has managed to outlast seven NHL head coaches this season.
Ftorek arrived during the 2007-08 season, replacing current assistant coach Peter Sidorkiewicz. Erie went 18-46-4 that season, but put together three consecutive winning records and playoff appearances prior to 2011-12.
“This isn’t finger-pointing time. You don’t become a bad coach all of a sudden,” Bassin said, adding “he has no reason to believe” Ftorek wouldn’t start next season behind the Otters bench. “He’s highly principled, a real good teacher and nobody outworks him. Let’s give him the tools to build a house here.”
'The kids we’re picking, we better know if the nurse dropped them when they were born because we pre-determined this is how we want to build it.'— Sherry Bassin on Erie's preparation for OHL draft
A key component of the rebuild is this spring’s OHL draft. Bassin will look to replenish the Otters’ system after dealing four of his past eight first-round picks early in their OHL careers and either trading or releasing five of his top seven selections from the 2009 draft.
Bassin said the Otters are in position to draft a franchise player, with many OHL observers believing Toronto Marlboros AAA minor midget centre Josh Ho-Sang could be calling Erie his new hockey home. The Hockey News described Ho-Sang, 15, as having “game-breaking speed and explosive puck skills.” In his first 30 games this season, he had 30 goals and 73 points.
“The kids we’re picking, we better know if the nurse dropped them when they were born,” Bassin said, “because we pre-determined this is how we want to build it.”
The father of three has told his scouting staff to prepare for a lot of pre-draft meetings and not bother with generalities when sharing information on prospects.
“They better know specifics … and I told them, ‘You better justify it, not just say a guy’s a real good player.’ You better justify why he should be ahead of somebody else [in the draft order] or why somebody else should be behind somebody else. You better be dissective.”
For now, Bassin will watch his young group gain a ton of experience — “we don’t need shaving cream when we go on the road” — and hope they hate every minute of the team’s rebuild.
“People are making fun of us,” he said. “They have our visit circled on the calendar and are looking forward to our bus coming to town. I tell my boys: ‘There’s going to come a time when they’re not going to like that bus comin’.’
“A lot of guys are happy because they make the playoffs. I want to make more than the playoffs here before I come and sit beside you with a season ticket. The object is to win the big one. I’ve been there a number of times and I want to go one more."