Erie Otters right wing Alex DeBrincat celebrates with teammates including Dylan Strome, at left, after scoring against the Mississauga Steelheads during the third period of their OHL hockey game at Erie Insurance Arena on Jan. 31, 2016. (ANDY COLWELL / ERIE TIMES-NEWS VIA AP)

Every kid playing sports dreams of being in the spotlight someday.  They dream of being Crosby or Lemieux, Rothlisberger or Bradshaw, Clemente or McCutchen.  Hockey kids start the dream early (with supporting hockey moms), usually in mini and mites (ages 5-8), squirt, pee wee and bantam leagues (9-14), and on to juniors (16–20), or college.

Hockey is infectious…a flowing constant of bodies, energy and shifting momentum.  Gliding, stopping, running, hopping, spinning and cruising on ice with a weird looking stick, while manipulating a frozen disk in your peripheral vision…is a bit awe-inspiring.

Here in Pittsburgh, we’ve been blessed with the best…Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr (still playing in the NHL at 45), Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pierre LaRouche, Jean Pronovost, to name some.  That is to say…we are a tad spoiled.

However, two hours north in Erie, you’ll find a brand of hockey where the best seat in the house cost the same as the worst one at PPG Arena.  At 1/3 the size, Erie Insurance Arena packs plenty punch and power.  Welcome to junior hockey and the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.  For junior players, this is a developmental league, a segue to college or the pros.

As the name suggests, this league of 20 teams is made primarily (three from the U.S.) from cities in the Canadian province of Ontario, just across Lake Erie.  They have names like Oshawa, Kitchener, Mississauga, Saginaw and Guelph…and with nicknames like the Steelheads, Petes, 67’s and Frontenacs. (Yes, the Frontenacs…a name derived from Fort Frontenac, of Louis de Baude de Frontenac, governor of New France–now Kingston Ontario–if you must know).

Some great players have played juniors rather than go the collegiate route. While Mario Lemieux played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (a sister league to the OHL), Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr played in the Ontario Hockey League, as did Penguins Andy Bathgate, Syl Apps, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, Phil Bourque (a Frontenac) and Bob Errey.  So have other major players like Steve Yzerman (DET), Scott Stevens (NJ), Eric Lindros (PHI)…and current players such as Patrick Kane (CHI), Steven Stamkos (TB), John Tavares (NYI), and of course former Erie Otter, number one draft pick, Connor McDavid (EDM).

McDavid resides in Edmonton, Alberta as the youngest captain (19 years old) in NHL history, running neck and neck for a scoring title with the best player in the land, Sidney Crosby.  That must say something about his skills but also about his development in juniors.  While he was “up ‘ere” in Erie, he set all kinds of rookie records (as a 15 year-old) for the Erie franchise and for the league.  His three years as an Otter was a conduit to developing those skills.  And players like Dylan Strome, Taylor and Darren Raddysh, and Alex DeBrincat are right behind him.

Right wing Alex DeBrincat is setting records too. Recently, he tied the OHL record with a 19-game goal streak, scored 100 points for the third year in a row, scored 50 goals for the same period, and recorded over 300 career points for the league, And on a recent night, he became the American all-time OHL goal scoring leader.  He will be a rookie sensation somewhere in the Chicago Blackhawk’s system next year.  He just won the OHL scoring title with 127 points (and a +60 plus/minus). Right wing Taylor Raddysh has 108 points (and a +66).  As Penguin color commentator Bob Errey might say…sounds like a two-headed monster.

Goalie Troy Timpano, who at one point in the season was 17-1 in goal, has finished the season at 36-8 with a 2.37 goals against average and a .915 save percentage.  He figures to loom large in the playoffs, with a solid tender behind him in Joseph Murdaca at 12-4.

The Otters have gone deep into the playoff for the last three years, but have not clinched the OHL Robertson Cup.  One wonders that if you can’t win it with McDavid on your roster, can you do it at all?  This may be the year.   “We weren’t a very good team last year,” confesses head coach Kris Knoblauch.  ”You won 52 games last year” I gasped. “We didn’t have the players we have this year,” he noted.

Knoblauch has this team playing consistently great hockey.  The Otts have just won the entire league with 103 points, 32 games above .500.  The playoffs start Thursday in Erie (Sarnia in the 1st round) so it’s time to get your ass “up ‘ere.”  That’s what Erites call Pittsburghers…”up ‘eres”…you know from… “hey yinz guys goin’ up ‘ere to Presque Ahll?”

Knoblauch is a coach and coaches teach. In fact, Knoblauch was a substitute teacher in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, where he was content to live with his family in what he terms “paradise.” But a falling out with the junior team, Kootenay Ice of Cranbrook, British Columbia, that he was coaching, changed things.  That’s Erie’s good fortune, since they had not won a playoff series in nine years before coach Kris showed up five seasons ago.  Last year, they had their third consecutive 50+ win season…an OHL record… and then did it a fourth time in the season’s last game on Saturday.

As I write this article over several games late in the season, the Otts have won them all, with scores of 9-1, 8-4, 9-4 …and this one, a 10-1 win, where center Dylan Strome became the Otters all time points leader with 309, as the Otts scored 8 goals in the second period…setting a franchise record on route to a 60-shot game outburst, tying their own record.  Four of the five top plus/minus players in the league this year are Otters.

Like I said, they set records “up ‘ere” in Erie, Penn. This is some brand of hockey.

The Otters actually started out in Niagara Falls, Ontario, as the Niagara Falls Thunder.  They moved to downtown Erie in 1996.  The game experience here is the same as in the NHL…lots of loud music, a goofy mascot (in this case, an upright Lake Erie otter who looks more like Goofy or Pluto), kiss cams, t-shirt toss, chuck the puck, human bowling, dance contests, free food…all intended to keep the family entertained.  It’s all about entertainment, is it not?

Coach Knoblauch replaced Robbie Ftorek in 2012.  Ftorek, who has his name on the Stanley Cup twice and was head coach of the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins in his past life, was being replaced by a 33-year-old coach with just two years of experience in junior hockey.  Knoblauch didn’t seem intimidated.  After that first losing season, with a team he inherited from Ftorek, Knoblauch made some drastic changes, trading away talent for grit and character.  That helped support younger players who wanted to lead but had no support.  Goal production went from next to last in the league to first in one season.

Side Note:  Mario Lemieux said the same thing (adding grit and character) when he hired GM Jim Rutherford, on a 3-year window to get a Penguin’s championship done.  Rutherford did it in two.

“The players worked hard, bought in and played a system,” Knoblauch tells me in his thick western Canadian accent.  ”They wanted to win and it showed.  We went from 19 wins to 52…an OHL record.”

Yeah, setting records you might say, is “That Thing You Do” in Erie, Penn.

As for now, Knoblauch loves coaching in Erie.  He can’t see working for a better organization but admits, given the opportunity to go to the next level, he would like to have the chance.  AHL teams with coaching issues should take note.  He may also see himself as an NHL assistant coach in the near future.  But he asks himself this…”is it good for my family?  Is it an organization that plays hockey how I want it to be played?”

Apparently, Erie is a place where they play hockey his way, which varies depending on the players he has to utilize.  With this group, they play a brand of hockey where they take chances–and consequently turn over the puck–relying on defense to bail them out. It helps to have Troy Timpano in net.

GM Dave Brown and Knoblauch want players who “play hard with offensive capabilities but are responsible defensively,” says Knoblauch, “players who are responsible on and off the ice.  Team culture is important for team success.”

I talked to DeBrincat, Strome, Raddysh and Timpano, whom when queried, all said “maturity” was their greatest development in juniors.  ”I didn’t ‘get it’ till late,” says coach Knoblauch, which kind of derailed his own pro career.  He didn’t get work hard consistently, eat right, work out, and such.  Ultimately it sent his hockey career in another direction…towards Erie.  ”You don’t know what you don’t know.”

“Your face and your name are out there,” says Penguin color man and once a Penguin first round pick, Bob Errey, who played two years in the OHL in Peterborough for the Petes, on a line with hall-of-famer, Steve Yzerman. Errey then went on to play on a line with hall-of-famer Mario Lemieux, on their way to winning Stanley Cups in ’91 and ’92.

“You’re not a normal person going to school,” continues Errey.  ”You’re kids, you develop as a person, being able to mature as quickly as you can.  You’re developing your mind.  There is a lot of pressure around you.”

If there is pressure on these young Otters, you would never know it.  There is this easy comradery around them.  I think they’re a confident bunch.  And why not? They did have a dip in wins in the last 10 games, so they had to win the last two to get 50 for Knoblauch, which they did.  Yes, it’s that thing you do in Erie, Penn.

Yinz really Otta’ go “up ‘ere” and see some Otter’s play-off hockey.

Lee Kann is a media producer and a writer. Contact: shooting16bl@gmail.com

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