As a player, Ken Peroff made an impact in junior hockey as the highest-scoring defenceman on a Brampton Battalion team that reached the OHL final in 2009.
Less than a decade later, Peroff is making his mark in junior hockey as a coach.
The 28-year-old North Bay native, in his rookie season as head coach of the junior ‘B’ Ancaster Avalanche of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, has exceeded expectations after taking the job just days before training camp.
Peroff, who hung up the blades in 2015 after one pro season in Europe that followed four years at the University of Guelph and four OHL seasons with the Battalion, has the Avalanche near the top of the 26-team GOJHL as the playoffs approach.
A junior affiliate of the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, the Avalanche feature 15 rookies and have a 36-10-2 record, in the mix for second place in the Golden Horseshoe Conference. The 36 wins ties a franchise record set in 2009-10 when the club was located in Stoney Creek. Since relocating to Ancaster in 2013, the high-water mark for wins was 30, set last year.
The Avalanche had been coached the last four seasons by former NHL draft pick Ryan Kuwabara, who took an assistant coaching job with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit in mid-August. Just days before training camp, Peroff was hired by Avalanche president Tim Wilson to take the reins of a team with just five returning players.
“I was hoping – not expecting, but hoping – it would turn out this way,” said Wilson. “I interviewed Ken in my backyard, and we probably spoke for three hours. I couldn’t let him leave without offering him the position because he impressed me so much with his hockey knowledge and his confidence. I knew once I had spent the time I did with Ken, he wasn’t leaving the house without me offering him the job. And I’m glad I did.” Peroff had been preparing to help the OJHL’s Oakville Blades as an assistant coach this season, but when the Ancaster head coaching position came up – Peroff came highly recommended by Blades assistant Garrett Rutledge – he was all-in. Interviewing for a head coaching job was something he had been prepared for.
“It’s something I always thought about – long before I got the chance to be a head coach – how I would go about doing my business, how I would want the team and organization to run,” said Peroff, who was drafted to the OHL out of high school hockey with the West Ferris Trojans. “And Tim was very supportive and he gave me a huge opportunity. It’s a leap of faith to take a coach who has never been a head coach before. As happy as I am in accomplishing some goals we’ve been able to accomplish, I’m also really happy I’ve been able to keep the owner happy and give him a winning season.”
A gig as a scout with the OHL’s North Bay Battalion helped Peroff get a headstart on this season. Upon retiring as a player, Peroff made a connection with his former junior coach, Stan Butler, and got involved in helping the Battalion prepare for the inaugural Under-18 Priority Selection last spring.
“I could have continued to play, but I felt my life was kind of calling me in a different direction,” said Peroff, who spent the 2005-06 season with the North Bay Skyhawks before joining the Battalion. “I hung them up, but once you hang them up, you want to get involved, so the first thing I did was call Stan Butler and see if I could scout for him.”
That scouting role meant he was watching a lot of midget ‘AAA’ hockey last season, in addition to helping coach the OJHL’s Milton Icehawks. Scouting for the under-18 draft helped him get a good look at some of the province’s top 16- and 17-year-old players, some of whom are now thriving with the Avalanche, such as Dirk Stadig, Ben Woodhouse, Luke Croucher and Matthew Bridgwater.
Ask Peroff about any player in the GOJHL or other junior leagues and chances are good he can give you an assessment. If not, he will make a point to look him up and learn more.
“He lives, sleeps, eats and breathes hockey and that’s quite evident,” Wilson said. “How can you not want that on your hockey team? I’m happy we got him and happy I took the risk. It’s turned out to be great.”
Coming together under Peroff and his staff, the young Avalanche squad has been consistent in pushing the league’s top clubs while winning games they are supposed to win. The fast-skating club employs a tight-checking style, but Peroff’s philosophy is based on keeping things fun.
“I really do believe kids this age – it wasn’t long ago I was this age myself – want to be challenged, they want to be pushed, but they also want you to be creative and smart in making that environment fun,” he said. “You can be a hard-ass, but if the kids don’t enjoy it and they’re not buying into what you’re doing, then they’re doing it for you and that’s not what you want. You want them to do it for themselves and the only way they’ll do that is if they enjoy what they’re doing.”
There is still the most important part of the season remaining – playoffs – but now that Peroff has the coaching bug, it’s not something he is giving up any time soon. He also helps run a family real-estate business, but coaching is his thing.
“I absolutely love it,” he said. “It’s not a traditional job in the sense that if you ask most people what they do, they can usually quantify it with how many hours a week they work. If I counted every hour that I’m mulling things over – whether it be a line combination, another team, a system, a practice, a video, a drill – I’m basically working 24-7.
“When you’re working that hard at something, but it doesn’t really feel like work, then you’re in something you can do long-term and you’re motivated to do well. I think I’ve found something I really enjoy and I’m really happy to have found something I enjoy. Not everyone does something they really love every day, so you can’t take that for granted.”