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Bluelines Summer Edition: Erie Otters' Sherry Bassin prepares to step aside

"Bluelines: Summer Edition" is written by Ranjan Rupal (right), the play-by-play voice, and Greg Theberge (left), a former Memorial Cup winner and Washington Capitals defenseman and hockey analyst for The OHL Tonight on TVCogeco.
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"Bluelines: Summer Edition" is written by Ranjan Rupal (right), the play-by-play voice, and Greg Theberge (left), a former Memorial Cup winner and Washington Capitals defenseman and hockey analyst for The OHL Tonight on TVCogeco.  Photo by Lindsay Sarazin.

 

builder |ˈbildər|  noun - a person who constructs something by putting parts or material together over a period of time; a person or thing that creates or develops a particular thing

Sherwood Bassin will one day be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

Over the past 40 years, the affable former owner of the Erie Otters has left an indelible mark on the game, and as a hockey-crazed nation, we owe him a debt of gratitude for his service. 

His impact has been far-reaching.   Not too long ago, you may have enjoyed watching North Bay Battalion forward Nick Paul represent our country at the World Junior Championships, and for that you may thank Bassin who, in the early 1980s, played a key role in convincing major junior executives to part with their very best players, and form a true Team Canada, rather than send club teams, which had been the habit, like lambs to the slaughter, year after year.

On Friday, after 20 years at the helm of the Erie Otters, and at the age of 75, the Bassin era will come to an end. 

Sherry, as he is more affectionately known, will step aside and make way for new ownership following the team’s sale, by auction, to Jim Waters and JAW Hockey Enterprises of Toronto.  How all this came about is a story for another day, but the details have been well publicized and are readily searchable, but suffice to say, it’s not a script that Bassin would have imagined. 

William Shakespeare could have written this classical tragedy, with the highly esteemed Bassin as the protagonist, and though a prince among princes, he is human: brilliant in many ways, yet, like all of us, replete with flaws and foibles, and suddenly driven, by twist of fate, quite possibly by the actions of his own hand, to a dramatic, sorrowful end.

In one sense, hockey is much like Stratford in that the audience never goes home downhearted and disconsolate.  Heroes don’t just fade to black.  No, the curtain rises once more, and the cast re-emerges for the curtain call and, in the end, we are relieved that Hamlet didn’t really drink the poison, he remains in costume, and we are happy to remember him the way he was, the way we always knew him.

Bassin’s future with the Otters is uncertain.  He is presently a minister without portfolio in that organization, though he wishes dearly to remain on in some capacity.

To learn more, I spoke with Sherry Bassin, the influential architect of junior hockey, and the outgoing owner of the Erie Otters…

Ranjan:  Sherry, we share a common background: we’re both pharmacists, and we’ve found tremendous satisfaction in devoting ourselves to hockey.  Now, whereas I continue to practice, you decided to hang up your white coat…why?

Sherry Bassin:  First of all, when I got my pharmacy degree and then I went on to get a Masters in Hospital Administration, I practiced, but then I went on to get my Juris Doctor of Law.  

What happened is very simple:  I grew up in a small town in northern Saskatchewan so, if you didn’t play hockey, you died of boredom.  I went down to North Dakota, and I was playing hockey and realized very quickly that I wasn’t that good, even though at the time I thought it.  So I got those degrees.  I got my Law degree because I was going to get a Ph.D in hospital pharmacy, and practice pharmacy while I was going through all those.  This was in the States, and we kept getting these letters about “brain drain” to the States, and about coming back to Canada.  I moved to Winnipeg, and I was coming home and decided to stop by the Food & Drug Directorate, and the main guy was there, and called me and wanted to meet me.  He offered me a job with the legal division of Food & Drug, and I had to move to Toronto.  So I moved to Toronto and Durham College was looking for someone to design a paralegal program for the province of Ontario and that’s how I got going, after about 5 years of practice I got involved in these other things.

Be it a frozen pond in Saskatchewan, or the Erie Insurance Arena, Bassen has managed to excel

Ranjan:  It was quite by accident that you began coaching, I read you wandered into a local arena and offered some basic instruction to a house league hockey player, and the rest is history…

Sherry Bassin:  I had been coaching out in North Dakota, and we won a state championship, and then I was ref'ing high school, and I was selected to ref in the state tournament, which is a big deal out there, statewide television, and then I came here to Toronto in October.  When I arrived I called the Metro Toronto Hockey League, and they laughed at me and said, “What are you talking about?  We pick our coaches in April!”  That’s not what we do out West, so I was out of it for a little bit.

Then one day in December I wandered over to Bayview Street and these house league guys were practicing outdoors.  There was a kid who came off the ice, and I had watched how he was shooting the puck:  he didn’t have his hands set properly, and were too close to his body, and I was showing him this.  Then all of a sudden these guys who were on the ice skated over to me and said, “Will you come to a practice?”  I thought to myself, “Yeah, I mean, I’ll come and pick up pucks and stuff,” because I don’t believe in interfering with whatever people are doing.  I didn’t realize the practices were at 6am!  

Then these guys asked me to run a few drills, so I ran a few drills for this house league team that hadn’t won a game yet.  I ran a few drills, and everything’s fine, and I go off the ice and I’m taking off my stuff to change to get to work.  Then the fathers came in and said, “We want you to coach our team.”  I said, “No, that’s not what I’m about here, I just came over to help.  You’ve got people doing it...”  They said, “Look, we’re just fathers helping out.  We don’t know what we’re doing really.  We’ll manage, we’ll look after everything.”  So I said yes, but we have to have more practices!  Then we ended up winning the house league championship!

The next year, someone came to me and asked me about coaching a bantam team.  Then we won the city championship, and the year after they recruited me to coach Wexford, that was when it was full midget, and we won the all-Ontario championship in 1970.  After that, Junior B was a big deal then, not so much Tier II.  I was coaching the Pickering Panthers when there were only eight Junior B teams between Yonge Street and Kingston.  So that was all recruiting: I went out and recruited Elizabeth Manley’s two brothers!

When I went to the Oshawa Generals, I didn’t even apply for the job, somebody wrote a letter on my behalf.  The owners came out to see me at Durham College unannounced, where I was a professor, and hired me.

Ranjan:  Starting in 1976, a lengthy tenure in Oshawa followed by Sault Ste. Marie and a Memorial Cup with them in 1993, and now a two-decade long run with the Erie Otters.  The hockey business is notorious for short-lived careers.  What has been the key to your long career?

Sherry Bassin:  I didn’t make decisions just to keep my job.  I always planned for the future.  I wasn’t worried about getting a job or working.  I made decisions that I thought were right, that were well planned out, and not just for the immediate future.  We always had a long-tem plan and we broke it down into yearly plans, monthly plans and daily plans.  I didn’t have to worry about making a decision just to keep my job.

That’s why we didn’t draft Wayne Gretzky.  There was a reason.  He should’ve been drafted.  But because we were picking early that year, we weren’t a very good team, and I was driving down the highway…I can still remember: 401 and Kennedy Road, and Mr. Gretzky’s having a press conference in Indianapolis.  He’s going to play one year in Junior and then go into the WHA.  I just about drove the car off the road!

As the World Hockey Association loomed, Bassin's Oshawa Generals passed on Wayne Gretzky

Ranjan:  What was going through your mind?

Sherry Bassin:  Well, I mean, hey, we’re trying to build a team for the future.  He’s going to be there one year.  In those days you were only allowed one minor midget.  So I called the owner and said, “What do you think if I don’t draft Gretzky?”  Well, when I had jumped over to the Generals, the owner asked me what should I do?  I said owners own, and managers manage.  So when I called him about Gretzky he said, “Well, you’re the hockey guy!”

So we took Tom McCarthy who scored 59 goals, and Rick Lanz, a minor midget, who left early.  Both of them left early, but we got McCarthy for two and Lanz for three.  We went from last place to third overall in a year.  The Soo had a pretty good year, and then went to the basement for a few years.

Ranjan:  My broadcast partner, Greg Theberge, played on those great Peterborough Petes squads that may have given your Generals some trouble.  Do you recall Theberge out there?

Sherry Bassin:  Aaaah, I sure do!  Are you kidding?  He was a very good player!  You got to remember: they were archrivals.  Archrivals of ours!  We were just talking about this, a year or two ago… when we played the Peterborough Petes, we played at 7:30pm and we opened the gates at 6:30pm, there’d be a race, you could hear the feet, just to get to the standing room section...a race!  Yes, I remember Theberge very well.

Ranjan:  Do you recall a strategy to take Theberge off his game?

Sherry Bassin:  We always had strategies for different people, depending on how they played the puck.  He could carry that puck, I mean, he was a good player!

Ranjan:  It won’t surprise you then, to know, that to this day, he boxes me out in the broadcast booth when he gets excited...

Sherry Bassin:  [laughs] I can see that.  He played with high emotion and commitment to the game.  Oh yeah, I remember him very well.

Ranjan:  Theberge texted me to ask who your mentors have been along the way…

Sherry Bassin:  One of my main mentors was, growing up in Saskatchewan, there was a farmer named Gordie MacMurchy who then became Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Education.  He really developed an interest in me.  He worked with me in hockey, baseball, track...I was blessed with speed so I played all those sports.  I was a halfback in football.  He took a real active interest in a number of the young guys.  He was a very good player.  In those days there were only six NHL teams and, if I remember, he played some in the American Hockey League.  His value system, and his talks with me... He didn’t know much about track, yet he’d wake me up at seven in the morning and he’d get me to go work on the track.

Then I used to follow the philosophy of a number of successful coaches.  I was a big believer in Vince Lombardi, and all his books, and I went to some practices.  There were so many different people that I would read about: John Wooden was one.  I even used to go to basketball clinics for a couple of days just to get their philosophy of coaching and managing.

There were different people that I worked with, and got to know a lot of the pros, and spent some time with Pierre Pagé, and I loved his values.  He’s a guy out of Quebec and went to school in the East and couldn’t speak a word of English.  Dave King was someone else I used to spend time with.

Ranjan:  It goes without saying: you’ve mentored many yourself.  Take a proud moment and tell me about about some of your protégés...

Sherry Bassin:  There’s been a number of them, over a 100 players who been in the NHL.  One of the things I do is visit my players.  I talk to them a lot, and not always about hockey.  I was lucky enough to win a couple of gold medals.  The times when you win those gold medals, they think you’re smarter than you really are.  When we took over the world juniors under the new concept, we hadn’t been in the medals in 10 years, and our goal was to win a medal. We changed the philosophy.  I had lunch with the players - I never ate with the staff - I ate with the players, at different tables for a week, just to find out about them.  We wanted people who were really committed to wear that jersey.  

When we won the gold medal in 1982, we had Troy Murray.  The next year we went over to Russia, and I don’t want to say we got hosed, but let’s say that the referees didn’t win our respect, but on that team was Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux.  When I was in Quebec, I had guys like Mats Sundin and Joe Sakic.  

There was Adam Foote, Bobby Boughner, Stevie Sullivan, who was too small and went late in the draft and ended up playing 18 years in the NHL, and Jimmy Paek, the first Korean to play in the NHL, and won two Stanley Cups.

Ranjan:  You’ve been a key stakeholder in an Ontario Hockey League that has become the model for developmental leagues around the world.  Describe your role in the evolution of junior hockey…

Sherry Bassin: I believe the League is just that.  I was interim commissioner for a year.  And I remember when we first introduced the World Junior concept, and the emotion of the owners that didn’t want to lose their stars from the month.  You had to be in that room! [laughs] It came around to me and I said my players are going.  They were yelling and screaming.  I looked at one of them and said, if it were your son would you let him go?   Imagine if we weren’t involved with that?  

Sherry Bassin was one of the original architects of Team Canada

I’m proud to say I was part of the group that hired Dave Branch, because he’s given us phenomenal leadership.  There’s a number of things that we implemented that I was proud to be part of: one, was the education packages.  And the contract we had with the NHL, I was one of the originators who wrote it up, and I met with the NHL president about why we needed a relationship in writing.

Ranjan:  When you learned the North Bay Centennials had been sold and moved to Saginaw, what was your gut reaction?

Sherry Bassin:  Sad.  I just hate to see communities lose their franchise.  I really believe in smaller communities, when they could identify with a team like that.  I don’t like to see them go, and I’m not ripping anybody, but I don’t like to see communities, especially it in northern communities where hockey is such a strong part of the culture, and I think that’s where our roots are.  I like to draft small town kids from these communities.  I find they have a very good values system.

Ranjan:  A decade later, what were your thoughts when it was announced that a notoriously hard-working Battalion franchise was relocating to a no-nonsense hockey town like North Bay?

Sherry Bassin:  First of all, I know the owner Scott Abbott very well, and consider him a friend.  I know how he maintained his team in Brampton, and never, ever complained about it.  I thought it was a phenomenal match between Scott and North Bay.  The owner of that team is very dedicated to having quality teams, and doing things the right way.  He’s very proud and works hard, and Stan Butler’s been with him for 17 years, so you know he believes in loyalty.  He’s a very loyal guy, very committed guy, and when I saw his enthusiasm at the meetings, and when I met your city leaders, and saw how proud they were, I thought it was great for the League.  Hurray for North Bay!

Ranjan:  You’ve had the distinct pleasure of nurturing Connor McDavid and technically he remains an Erie Otter.  Now what advice would you give him as he embarks on his pro career?

Sherry Bassin:  Well the funny thing is, there’s not much advice to give him because he’s a better person than he is a player.  Everyone else watches him play; I’ve been lucky enough to know him as a person.  I can tell you stories about him… 

Sherry Bassin was the ideal choice to guide Connor McDavid's development

Like anything else, we’re talking about preparation.  His will to prepare is unbelievable.  He was academic player of the year the last two years in a row, which tells you a lot.  Whatever he does, he has a quiet drive to be the best he can.  And he’s extremely humble…extremely humble.  He takes no credit.  

I told this story at our banquet.  We sold out every rink we were in after Christmas, when there would be hundreds to a thousand people waiting for autographs.  It was very, very cold one night when we were in Guelph.  The game ended, and I looked out in the hallway and the place was just packed with people.  It was just crowded all the way to the bus.  I went to him and I said, “Davo, we could take you out the other way, the back door, and put you on the bus.”  And he looked at me and said, “Bass, I was a little boy once too.  I’ll go out and sign.”  He was there 45 minutes.  So, this is a 17, 18-year old kid we’re talking about.  I mean this guy is something.  It’s amazing he such a great player, because he’s such a special person.  One thing I tell my players, you know if you want respect, show respect.  If you want love, show love.  I have this statement I always make to the players: do I like who I am when I’m around you?  I love who I am when I’m around Connor McDavid.

Ranjan:  A lot of people were hoping Toronto or Buffalo.  When the draft lottery was held, you wouldn’t be alone if you were thinking anywhere but Edmonton

After three years with Bassin, Connor McDavid is on the verge of NHL stardom

Sherry Bassin:  Well, everybody says that. Here’s what I can say about Edmonton: they didn’t win the lottery…they won a jackpot.  This guy makes other players better...I can’t say enough about him.  He announced a short time ago that the three years in Erie were the best three years in his life, and he’ll go there and adapt.  I’m sure geographically, it’s tough like that, but in Toronto he wouldn’t be able to go out for dinner, he’d be mobbed.  But I’m sure that’s going to happen in Edmonton too.  Him and I have a lifetime bond, and this was an unbelievable jackpot for them because he can quarterback a franchise in time.

Ranjan:  I have to say, many who view you as a hockey hall of famer in the builder category are saddened by the reports coming out of Erie these days, myself included.  What silver lining can be found in all of this?

Sherry Bassin:  Well, let me tell you what happened there.  I didn’t like the stigma either.  I didn’t go into Chapter 7, I went into Chapter 11, just a reorganization.  I did it voluntarily.  I was in this dispute with Edmonton, and Edmonton was going to buy the team.  I said, well, if you’re going to buy the team, you’ve got to put some cash into this thing.  For the contract, I had pretty good legal representation. It doesn’t move and you get your money when I sell the team. They believe there was a breach somewhere, and they went to court and it was thrown out.  So I filed Chapter 11.  The Pittsbugh Penguins did it.  The L.A. Dodgers did it.  American Airlines operated under it.  So even though it has the term bankruptcy it’s really not bankrupt, there’s plenty of money from the sale of it to pay them off, and a little bit of money left for me.  I did not like the stigma of the word bankruptcy, but it stopped everything, they couldn’t do a thing, now that had to answer to the judge.

Ranjan:  On July 10th, your Erie Otters will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.  As that day approaches, what are you feeling inside?

Sherry Bassin:  I wasn’t going to do it; I waited until the last minute.  Today we’re going to find out if there are other people.  Otherwise they’ve got paperwork already done for this particular person (Jim Waters) to buy the team. Now the team is going to be sold and I think it’s a decent price for it.  It’s funny you ask that, I’m sure it’ll be an emotional day for me, because I’m so intricately involved in everything: from ownership to management.  I’m not going to get out of hockey, I’m going to do something because (if not) they’ll think I’m an old guy, but I still feel young.  I’m thinking this isn’t the end, I believe my position is to be a devil’s advocate in every sense of the organization.  It’s going to be a major change for me, but like I’ve adapted everywhere I’ve been, and I expect to adapt properly here.




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