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Brophy: Why the junior game is total hockey heaven

With the World Junior Championship approaching, we’re reminded why junior hockey is some of the most thrilling and enjoyable hockey in the world.

I am often asked what I prefer, junior hockey or the NHL?

It is a legitimate question since I covered junior hockey for 14 seasons and the NHL for 24. My answer is always the same: Junior.

Nothing against the NHL – the best hockey league in the world – but you just never forget your first love. For me, that was the Hamilton Red Wings in the mid-1960s. They were my team. The NHL was not on my radar at that point, but my uncle Johnny Petrovsky used to take me to the old Hamilton Forum – a barn, if there ever was one – on Thursday nights to watch the Red Wings.

My first hockey heroes were not pros. Back then there were precious few NHL games on TV and even when they were broadcast, often they didn’t hit the airwaves until the first period was nearly over. So even though Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito and Frank Mahovlich were tearing up the NHL, my hockey heroes went by the names of Freddie Speck, Danny Lawson, Jimmy Young, Lee Carpenter, Ed Hatoum, Jim Adair, Randy Manery, Ron Climie and Rene LeClerc. I thought Gerry Gray was the best goalie I had ever seen.

I could watch them up close and personal on Thursday night and then again Sunday morning when the game was replayed on CHCH TV with Norm Marshall calling the action, Sandy Hoyt providing the color commentary and Joe Watkins of the Hamilton Spectator providing the three stars when the game was over.

Total hockey heaven!

There is something about the proximity of sitting in a junior hockey rink – in Hamilton or Sudbury or Windsor – that just made you feel such a part of the game. I was reminded of that recently when on consecutive nights I attended junior games in Peterborough and Oshawa.

No matter where you are in the rink, you feel the rush…the action. When Rod Hare played defense for the Red Wings I could see Rod’s hair.

Growing up in Burlington, Ont., I could lay in bed at night with my dad’s transistor radio tucked under my pillow and listen to Red Wings games as well as the games being played in St. Catherines, Niagara Falls and Kitchener. When my parents poked their heads in my room they were convinced I was sleeping. Haha!

I was listening to the development of the likes of Marcel Dionne, Derek Sanderson and Walt Tkaczuk. In my mind they were already superstars.

Fast forward to 1978 and a young reporter leaves his first newspaper job at his hometown Burlington Gazette to work for the daily Peterborough Examiner with one goal: Cover the Peterborough Petes.

The next 14 years, hockey wise, were the best of my life. By now NHL coverage had expanded and there was plenty of TV coverage, but my heart was still in junior.

If I could simply explain my love for junior hockey it is this: You go to an NHL game in the last week of the season between two bottom feeders and you are likely to see a bunch of players on automatic pilot. Take in a game between two junior teams that won’t participate in the playoffs and you still have 40 prospects working their butts off to catch the attention of NHL scouts in the stands. A nothing game to you but it means the world to them…so they don’t mail it in.

While covering the Petes I was fascinated to see the development of players through their three- and four-year careers. A local kid like Dallas Eakins, for instance, came into the Ontario Hockey League as a scrapper on defense and eventually became a quality blue liner who proudly wore the ‘C’ as team captain.

It was a thrill to see the likes of Larry Murphy, Keith Crowder, Steve Yzerman, Bob Errey, Kris King, Mike Ricci and Chris Pronger among others in their formative years.

Not every story had a happy ending. Graeme Bonar may have been the best pure goal-scorer I have ever seen play junior hockey. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds Bonar seemed destined to have a long and fruitful pro career. In 18 games with Peterborough, upon being acquired from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Bonar scored 20 goals and 35 points. He added 11 goals and 21 points in 16 playoff games, but never skated a shift in the NHL.

Bonar was a great junior, though.

As my life steers away from the NHL, I am thrilled to have junior hockey to fall back on. With that in mind, the World Junior Championship can’t come fast enough!

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