PLAYING FIELD: Local man key architect of Canada’s World Junior team

James Boyd, who has deep local roots, is part of the Team Canada management group; ‘It’s about coming up with the best performance on demand,’ he says

It’s been a long, winding road but this year’s World Junior Hockey Championship that starts on Boxing Day marks a significant career milestone for Midland native James Boyd.

Asked to recall a memory or two from his time growing up in Midland and playing his minor hockey locally, Boyd sounded pretty much like any area hockey fan of a certain age.

“I remember going to Centennials games,” he says of the old Jr. C club of his vintage, recalling specifically the sight of future NHL tough guy Sandy McCarthy in Centennials garb, one of a few notable players at the time.

“I was all in back then, just like every other local kid.”

Though more than three decades have passed since he has lived in the area, Boyd’s ties remain strong. His mother-in-law lives here, at whose residence he enjoyed an early Christmas get-together with family before leaving for Edmonton earlier this month.

He and his wife Aubray and their two young daughters are regular visitors in the off-season.

“We always make a point of coming home…to rent a cottage (here) every summer,” he said.

After a playing career that included moving south to the Toronto area for his later stages of minor hockey, a four-year stint in the Ontario Hockey League and then a two-season run with the University of Guelph, Boyd turned to coaching.

The two-decade-long journey has included OHL stops in Belleville, Toronto/Mississauga and Ottawa, where he’s been GM of the 67’s since 2017. He took the lead of the multi-pronged Team Canada management group this year, who brought in Dave Cameron, Boyd’s longtime friend/colleague as head coach after Andre Tourigny resigned to take the top job with the Arizona Coyotes.

Cameron had also been Boyd’s choice to replace Tourigny behind the 67’s bench.

Surviving and thriving as long as Boyd has at the top rung of junior hockey is not easy. Results in junior matter just as much as they do in the pro game. But junior hockey success is more volatile because of the cyclical nature of its rosters. To that end, Boyd has been involved with multiple OHL finalists both as a coach and now as a GM.

Boyd was hesitant to pat himself on the back for any of those team accomplishments, though he did acknowledge the hard work done to help make it happen. He said that having the opportunity to learn from so many acclaimed coaches and having solid ownership were two keys that have helped him the most.

“I was very fortunate to be exposed to high-level coaching pretty much right away as a coach,” he said, offering a follow-up that could also serve as career advice for any prospective young coach:

“That (high-level exposure) allowed me to become the best assistant coach I could be.”

Beyond Cameron and Tourigny, Boyd also cited Lou Crawford and Bud Stefanski as mentors who helped him along the way.

Learning from older, more experienced mentors is not unique but it’s an interesting perspective coming from Boyd, who lost his own father to cancer almost 40 years ago while he was still a young boy.

“He was my first coach,” James says of his father, Bill, who was a local OPP Staff-Sgt at the time of his death. Boyd’s mother has since relocated to Toronto, where James has also lived for the past 20 years. His older brother, Mike, now lives in Burnaby, B.C.

Some of Boyd’s mentors have significant local ties as well. Stefanski was the associate head coach of the 2000 OHL champion Barrie Colts. He then served as the head coach, leading the Colts back to the 2002 OHL final. Stefanski later served in the same role with the St. Mike’s Majors, where he hired Boyd as an assistant.

That Majors club later moved to Mississauga, where the Boyd/Cameron duo had its closest brush with championship success. The Majors, playing at home, lost in Game 7 of the OHL final to the Owen Sound Attack in 2011, and then two weeks later in the Memorial Cup final to the Saint John Sea Dogs, also on home ice.

Close calls always hurt but Boyd does not sound regretful. The one(s) that sting the most were when Boyd’s 67’s lost in the 2019 OHL final to the Guelph Storm. A year later, the pandemic cancelled the 2020 post-season; the 67’s were the No. 1 ranked team in the country at the time.

“It didn’t help that Mike DiPietro and Kevin Bahl were hurt,” recalled Boyd, of his starting goaltender and top defenceman on the 67’s roster.

“As for 2020, we don’t like to talk about that.”

In fact, after some prodding, Boyd was happy to talk some more. That talented 67’s squad had local product Alec Belanger in the squad.

“There was something about that group,” said Boyd, of the 2019-2020 67’s squad, “we could see it right from the start of training camp that it was a special team.”

Boyd was also the GM of the renamed/rebranded Mississauga Steelheads that made it to the 2017 OHL final, bowing to the star-studded Erie Otters, who later lost in the Memorial Cup championship game to the host Windsor Spitfires.

Which brings us to Team Canada this season.

So far, local hockey fans are still smarting over the exclusion of Colts star defenceman Brandt Clarke not receiving an invite to the team’s final selection camp. In addition, former Colts forward Tyson Foerster, an Alliston native who played minor hockey in Barrie, would have been a shoo-in to make Team Canada after coming close last season. But Foerster was injured playing for the Philadelphia Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate and was not available.

Boyd did not comment on Clarke specifically but acknowledged the tough choices that he and the rest of the management group had to make.

“There were many, many players who were good enough to bring to camp who we couldn’t (invite) but deserved one,” he said.

More tough choices followed when 10 players were released in camp. Now, Boyd takes his place in the executive suite and watches as Cameron and his staff will try and guide Canada through both opponents that are plenty visible, and one that’s not: the most recent flare-up of COVID-19 virus.

“It’s about coming up with the best performance on demand,” explained Boyd, of the difficulty navigating a tournament that always comes down to producing multiple one-off wins against different opponents if Canada are to win a gold medal.

“You know that the adversity is coming, it’s a about meeting it head-one and in the best way possible when it happens.”

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