Sherry Bassin still has plenty of bark at 71
By Tim Wharnsby CBC Sports.ca April 5, 2011
ERIE, P.A. -- There are a couple of hours before puck drop, and Erie Otters managing partner Sherry Bassin has exited through the front door of the Louis J. Tullio Arena to take his beloved corgi Newman for a pre-game walk.
For Bassin and his dog, it was time for reflection. His Otters were about to face one of junior hockey's best in Windsor Spitfires netminder Jack Campbell in Game 4 of a first-round OHL series. Campbell had stopped 70 of 75 shots in the two previous games to allow the back-to-back Memorial Cup champs to take a 2-1 series lead. Bassin and Newman hoped for better times.
The 71-year-old Bassin has experienced plenty of good times in his life. But that wasn't the case about eight years ago when his mind and energy were not on junior hockey and began to wander. That trademark oomph was gone when he was around the rink.
He was worried about his eldest daughter, Zalena. She was in a Las Vegas hospital fighting for her life after being diagnosed with bladder cancer and an aggressive case of Chrohn's Disease. For a few years, Bassin and his wife, Jean, traded weeks down in Las Vegas to be with their daughter. Son Darin and the youngest daughter, Alana, also made visits to be with their ailing sibling.
For the first time in their Dad's life, hockey had taken a backseat and the Otters' on-ice performance exhibited his lack of attention. Since capturing the 2001-02 OHL championship, the Otters had six consecutive poor to middling seasons.
One spring Las Vegas evening three years ago, Bassin returned to his daughter's townhouse. He was exhausted, but noticed the light was blinking on the answering machine. It was from the school where Zalena taught. They wondered when she was coming back to work.
The next day Bassin drove to the school to talk to the principal. It was in a rough neighbourhood and he didn't like the scene. When he went to visit Zalena in the hospital later that day, he asked his daughter what she was doing teaching in that school. Her reply hit Bassin smack in the face. "What are you doing in hockey?," she shot back.
"I told her not to answer with a question," Bassin recalled. "But she wanted to know what kind of a job I was doing."
The answer was not good. Zalena was telling her Dad that she loved what she was doing and she knew her Dad's lifelong passion was hockey. It was time for Bassin to have faith that his daughter was on the mend and better times were ahead. It was time for him to immerse himself back in hockey.
"When I landed back in Toronto I drove straight to Erie and organized a meeting with the front office staff, the coaches and the players," Bassin said. "I told them 'the Sheriff is back in town.' I told them I'll take full responsibility if we don't get this thing back on track."
The Otters began the turnaround the next fall, and in the third season since Bassin's address they notched 40 wins, one short of the remarkable championship season nine years ago. Bassin was back on top and all the people who have been touched by him in his 45 years of hockey couldn't be happier.
"He has been such a big influence to so many people and players," said Buffalo Sabres forward Brad Boyes, who played on Erie's 2001-02 championship team. "I went there not really knowing much about junior hockey. I moved away from home for the first time. Having him there was a bonus. He taught me how to carry myself, how to play, the kind of commitment you need to make and then there is his passion. He's had so much success and experienced everything. He's a special person.
"I just have so much respect for him. He is so captivating to listen to. He always has a story that helps get his point across."
For Boyes, the story about Joe Sakic's work ethic has stuck in his mind. When Bassin was hired by the Quebec Nordiques in the summer of 1993 as assistant general manager, he set out to talk to each Nordique player that summer because he wanted to gauge the character and personality of every player on the roster.
When Bassin phoned Sakic on a Saturday morning to introduce himself, his girlfriend asked Bassin if Sakic could call him back in about 90 minutes when his workout in the basement would be finished.
"I've got all kinds of stories like this to get the message across for all the generations I've been with," Bassin said. "Here was a superstar [Sakic] who was 24 at the time and he's already in a routine and regiment in July. People talk about the will to win, well, it's more than that. It's not just talent that wins, it's the will to prepare to win."
Bassin began forming his winning philosophy as a kid growing up in Semans, Sask., under the watchful eyes of his parents, Mal and Molly. Mal owned grocery and clothing stores in the town of 400. His industrious work ethic was unmatched and rubbed off on his son Sherwood, as did his parents' unflagging optimism.
Bassin's grandfather was killed in Russia because of his religion (he was Jewish). Mal helped his mother and five sisters flee to Canada. Molly was part of a family of eight that emigrated to this country.
"My Dad would always tell me that a job that is not worth doing well isn't worth doing at all," Sherry recalled.
"There was a three-strike sort of rule with my Dad. When he spoke to me in English you were safe. When he was telling you to do something in half-English, half-Yiddish, you better start to listen. If it was all Yiddish - lookout."
It was slang, however, that Mr. Bassin employed when he noticed his son was spending too much time at the local outdoor rink. "He told me, 'hockey, smockey.'" Sherry said. "School was the only thing I was supposed to be worried about.
"But I grew up in a small town and if you didn't play hockey or curl in the winter or play baseball in the summer, you died of boredom."
Back in the game
Dad got his way. When the family moved to Winnipeg when Sherry was 16, Sherry excelled at school. He went to United College (now the University of Winnipeg) and gained post-graduate pharmaceutical and law degrees in North Dakota.
It was in North Dakota that Bassin began to make his mark as a motivator with young hockey players. He led a Fargo youth team to an upset 1-0 win over Grand Forks in the state championship. All of a sudden Bassin was on his way.
When he moved to Toronto in 1968 to work for the legal division of Health Canada, he stopped by a nearby rink. Next thing Bassin knew he was teaching a kid how to shoot and the existing coaches swiftly installed him behind the bench that season.
Not long after, he guided the York Mills bantams to the league final, the Wexford midgets to a Metro championship and a dominant Pickering junior B team to its league final. Bassin's success was not ignored by Oshawa Generals owner John Humphreys. As a result, Bassin was hired to run the Generals in 1976 and after some early hiccups behind the bench, Bassin, who was teaching at Durham College in Oshawa by then, concentrated solely on the general manager duties.
"I remember John asked me when he hired me what I wanted him to do," Bassin said. "I told him I'm a big believer in owners own, managers manage, coaches coach, scouts scout and players play. I may play devil's advocate quite a bit to a scout or a coach or a player. But that's just to challenge them."
It wasn't long before the Generals won the 1982-83 OHL title and lost the Memorial Cup final to the Portland Winterhawks that spring. A few years later the Generals were back as hosts of the 1986-87 Memorial Cup tournament.
Bassin moved to Sault Ste. Marie in 1989 to help rescue, along with a local ownership group, the once-proud Greyhounds franchise. A few months earlier, the previous regime, led by Phil Esposito, refused to acquiesce to Eric Lindros's demands to play closer to home. But Bassin found a way to convince his fellow OHL governors to change the rule that prohibited a team from trading its first-round selection.
Half-way through that 1989-90 season, Lindros was dealt to the Generals. They won the Memorial Cup and the following season the Northern Ontario city exacted its pound of Lindros flesh when the Greyhounds upended No. 88 and the Generals in six games in the OHL final.
Bassin would make three straight trips to the Memorial Cup with the Greyhounds and they finally captured the elusive trophy in 1993. The junior championship, in his mind, allowed him to try the NHL after he turned down many offers.
Although he had left by the time the Colorado Avalanche hoisted the 1995-96 Stanley Cup, Bassin helped build that Nordiques/Avalanche club into a contender.
Another proud accomplishment for Bassin was his assistance in developing the Canadian junior program. He was an assistant coach and assistant GM on the 1982 and 1985 teams and won a silver in 1984.
When Canada won its first world junior gold in 1982, it was Bassin who helped inspire the players to the title. It looked bleak for Canada as the Czechs held a 2-1 advantage after 40 minutes. During the second intermission, Bassin persuaded an organizer to lend him a gold medal. The emotionally charged Bassin sashayed around in the dressing room, waving the prize.
"He told us we could touch it, but not hold it," Canadian goalie Mike Moffat said.
Bassin asked how many players had won city and provincial championships. He then said, "Well, if you don't win this third period, you will only be able to tell people you were 20 minutes away from being world champions."
Canada busted out with goals from Mark Habscheid and Mike Moller for a 3-2 lead. The Czechs scored the tying goal, but a draw was enough to give the Canadians their golden moment in the round-robin tournament.
"The party lasted a long time in Rochester, [Minn.]" Bassin said. "We realized we had to get back to Minneapolis for the official ceremony. Then this rink rat, the guy who drove the Zamboni, hands me a piece of paper with a 613 phone number on it and says, 'Some guy named [Pierre] Trudeau has been trying to get a hold of you guys.' We tried to phone the Prime Minister, but no one answered.
"I wish I would have kept that piece of paper as a souvenir."
So here is Bassin, 29 years later, still in junior hockey. He has had both hips replaced and received a new shoulder. He has six trips to the Memorial Cup. He doesn't need this at age 71. Or does he?
"What are you doing in hockey?" as Zalena asked her Dad a few years ago.
The answer is quite simple. Bassin isn't the retiring type. He still has plenty to teach and plenty more to accomplish. Plus, he knows it's in the Bassin DNA that he will be around for at least another 20-plus years. Mal was 97 when he passed away. Molly was 94.
"My life has been pretty good and as a family we've always tried to give back," said Bassin, who has been married to Jean for 47 years, but really only six, he jokes, if you count all the time he's been away.
"I still have the passion for hockey. What I love about the game is that there is no place to hide in hockey and some people do that in life."
And you can bet that Bassin won't be hiding in Windsor before and after Game 7 on Tuesday. You see, the Otters didn't win Game 4 at home last Thursday, but they have won two in a row to force a deciding seventh game.
Win or lose, Bassin will climb back into his car with Newman to make the lengthy drive home. They'll talk about the game, about hockey, about life. Bassin will either be upbeat about the next round or next season.
That's why he still is in hockey, Zalena.