When a Hockey Hall of Famer, four-time Stanley Cup winner, three-time Norris Trophy recipient, and second-leading scorer among National Hockey League defenseman all time calls and asks you to ride shotgun with him in coaching a Canadian Junior “A” hockey team, what do you do?
“This opportunity came and I jumped at it,” Cyril Bollers, president and coach of Skillz Hockey told me. “That was something I never thought possible.”
Last weekend, Bollers signed on as an assistant coach of the Pickering Panthers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, working under Paul Coffey, who was named the Panthers’ new head of hockey operations by new General Manager Matt Muir.
The vacancies occurred when owner Steve Tuchner fired GM/Head Coach Matt Galati late last month. The Panthers are in the 22-team OJHL, a league that serves as a pipeline to NCAA and Canadian college hockey programs. It’s the Canadian equivalent to the United States Hockey League.
The Panthers are currently in second place with a 9-7-1 record in the OJHL’s North Division.
Coffey – who racked up 396 goals and 1,135 assists with nine NHL teams over a 21-season career – reached out to Bollers who once coached Coffey’s son, Blake, on an Under-15 hockey team. Blake Coffey is on the Panthers roster. Familiarity with the younger Coffey and with the OJHL were all pluses for Bollers.
“I coached in the OJ before with Brampton as a head coach, but I think for me what is most impressive is receiving a call from Mr. Coffey and being asked to come and join the team,” Bollers told me.
Bollers is one of the few coaches of color in high-level organized hockey. Philadelphia Flyers’ Craig Berube and Buffalo Sabres’ Ted Nolan, both of First Nations heritage, are currently the only minority head coaches in the National Hockey League.
Paul Jerrard, who is black, is an assistant head coach for the Utica Comets, the Vancouver Canucks’ American Hockey League farm team. Darren Lowe, who’s also black, is head coach of the University of Toronto’s men’s hockey team.
And Bollers aspires to join their ranks. His Skillz Black Aces and Black Mafia teams began as Toronto-based youth hockey teams comprised of elite, National Hockey League draft-eligible players born between 1995 and 1996 – and almost all of them black. As the program became successful, kids of all colors began filling out the rosters.
Skillz alums include Windsor Spitfires forward Joshua Ho-Sang, the New York Islanders first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Barrie Colts forward Brendan Lemieux, a Buffalo Sabres second-round pick this summer, Portland Winterhawks forward Keegan Iverson, a New York Rangers 2014 third-round pic, and Jaden Lindo, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2014 sixth-round pick, all played for Bollers.
Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenseman Darnell Nurse, the Edmonton Oilers’ 2013 first-round pick, Kitchener Rangers forward Justin Bailey, a Sabres 2013 second-round choice, and Bellville Bulls defenseman Jordan Subban, a Vancouver Canucks 2013 fourth-round selection and the brother of Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, also played under Bollers.
The Pickering post is the latest coaching assignment for Bollers. In March, he was tapped to be an assistant coach for an Under-16 hockey team that will represent Ontario in the 2015 Canada Winter Games.
For Coffey, the Pickering job is his latest foray into to hockey team management. He was head coach of the Toronto Marlboros midget “AAA” team last season when he was suspended for three games by the Greater Toronto Hockey League for allegedly making “discriminatory slurs” in the closing minutes of a game against the Senators, The Hockey News reported in February.
Details of the incident were never fully disclosed. But The Hockey News reported that the Senators lobbied the GTHL for leniency for Coffey, saying the incident had been blown out of proportion.