Unlike the National Hockey League where teams are usually indentified by star players, it's the coaches who are the faces of most junior hockey franchises.
I suppose that's because in the NHL, it's certain players who are fixtures for anywhere between 5 and 10 years and the biggest job for most coaches is to manage adult egos. Meanwhile, in junior hockey, it's the coaches who hold the balance of power and who are responsible for developing the players and trying to move them to the next level.
Don't get me wrong, when it comes to job security, the junior coach is often as vulnerable as the NHL coach. Still, it's the junior coach who is more linked to player recruitment, development and success or failure, hence the face of the franchise that goes with the job.
Well before I started writing about the North American Hockey League for Juniorhockey.com, I already knew that Tony Curtale was the mainstay coach of the Texas Tornado and that former NHL defenceman Moe Mantha was the man in charge of the Michigan Warriors. I was also quite aware that former Ontario Hockey League player and coach -- not to mention NHL journeyman -- Paul Gillis was back in junior hockey as coach of the Odessa Jackalopes.
As someone who covers the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League closely, I identify the Abitibi Eskimos with veteran coach Paul Gagne and when the topic is the OHL and the London Knights, I think of Dale Hunter before any player.
Back to Texas and Curtale, I think it's amazing that he has been with the NAHL Tornado for a dozen years and has all of those Robertson Cup championships. Curtale may have his detractors (who doesn't?) but kids flock to Texas to play for the enigmatic mentor who not only wins championships but produces Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association players year after year.
To me, Curtale is a great story.
I remember him very well as an outstanding junior defenceman with the OHL Brantford Alexanders who seemed ticketed for a long career in the NHL with the Calgary Flames. Well, the pro career may have come up short but Curtale has certainly made a name for himself as an NAHL coach who wins championships and develops players at a high rate.
(By the way, as somewhat of an interesting aside, three of the NAHL coaches who I mentioned in this column -- Curtale, Mantha and Gillis -- all previously coached in the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires under former owner Steve Riolo. Just for having survived the Riolo experience and to now be coaching with success in the NAHL gives me that much extra admiration for Curtale, Mantha and Gillis.)
At any rate, a good junior hockey program is often linked to how good the coach is at recruitment, as well as development.
Therefore perhaps, the need to be the face of the franchise.