Kyle Dubas’s life story is worthy of a Bruce Springsteen tune: Kid grows up in a far-flung, blue-collar town learning the value of hard work from his steel-worker grandfather. Kid has hockey in his blood, but a series of concussions dashes his dream of playing professionally. Kid leaves for the big city to get a business degree and makes good before giving it all up to come home to resurrect the sacred local junior squad.
Dubas, 25, is the first-year general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. His hiring in April raised eyebrows in a community that takes its Hounds seriously. Many will tell you the Soo is the Montreal of the OHL, the city that gave the hockey world the Esposito brothers and where names such as Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, Charlie Simmer, Joe Thornton and Wayne Gretzky wore the famous red-and-white sweater before becoming NHL stars.
“Every single topic with the team is hotly discussed, whether it’s who the backup goaltender is or why the eighth defenceman isn’t playing,” said Dubas, the second youngest GM in OHL history. “It doesn’t bother me, but I begin to worry when it starts to flow to the players because they are just kids. I look at it as my job to defend the guys.”
The pressure hardly took Dubas by surprise. Born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, his family’s past is intertwined with the franchise. His father is a former Greyhounds intern and his grandfather Walter coached the team from 1960-67, working at the Algoma Steel plant by day and stepping behind the bench at night.
Dubas’s parents divorced when he was eight, frequently leaving him in the care of his grandparents. If the Hounds were playing at home, Kyle and Walter were always in the same seats just inside the blueline. The old coach’s message to his grandson was simple: Winning teams never lose a battle.
“No grit, no glory,” Dubas said. “My grandpa told me that the minute you start listening to the press and the fans is your first step toward sitting with the press and the fans.”
His first job with the team was taking care of sticks and water bottles as a dressing-room attendant when he was 11. Concussions ended Dubas’s playing days when he was 14, but didn’t curb his passion for the game. He took a job as a hockey operations assistant with the Hounds, exposing him to player development and the logistics of running a junior franchise. He moved to St. Catharines, Ont., in 2003 to enroll in Brock University’s sports management program, balancing a full-time course load with scouting junior B and midget games for the Greyhounds.
After graduating with honours, Dubas set his sights on the agent business, landing a job with Uptown Sports Management, an agency in Burlington, Ont., representing OHL, minor pro and NHL players.
Despite being the youngest player agent certified by the National Hockey League Players’ Association, Dubas said the job was far from glorious at times.
“It’s a cutthroat, dirty business,” he said. “I was 20 years old trying to recruit players, and other agents were telling guys, ‘You can’t let him represent you. He’s 20. He’ll screw up the pivotal moments in your career.’ ”
Dubas was representing players such as Kyle Clifford (Los Angeles Kings) and Andrew Desjardins (San Jose Sharks) and helping Uptown establish offices in Calgary and Stockholm when the GM opportunity arrived. The Greyhounds’ owners, having watched the team miss the playoffs four out of eight years, decided it was time for a change.
Lou Lukenda, the Greyhounds’ majority shareholder and president, said the original plan called for the team to hire a veteran hockey man until Dubas walked in for his interview armed with a 95-page blueprint on the future of the team.
“He came well prepared and has some excellent ideas,” Lukenda said. “We thought his experience as an agent could help us and we liked the idea that he wanted a team that would be good every year, as opposed to the idea of building a team to try and go all the way for one year, only to pay the consequences for the next three or four.”
Lukenda said four other quality candidates interviewed, but the board was unanimous in wanting Dubas.
Dubas was thrown into the deep end, starting the job just three weeks before the OHL priority selection draft. The team had no coach, no players officially committed to returning for the 2011-12 season and a leading scorer asking for a trade. By the time his wheeling and dealing was done, the Greyhounds had 12 new players on a 25-man roster.
He also went to work trying to change the environment surrounding the franchise, interacting heavily with fans via Twitter and dubbing the 2011-12 season “The Rising,” borrowing the title from the 2002 Springsteen album. He said his goal is to build a constant pipeline of talent through the draft and get everyone –fans, players, coaches and front-office staff – pulling in the same direction to put the Greyhounds on an equal footing with traditional Western Conference powers such as London, Windsor and Kitchener.
“We’re not going to beat those teams on revenues and budgets, so we need to beat them on the culture of our team,” Dubas said. “When a player comes to our team, he needs to know we’re going to get the most out of him in the classroom, in the community and on the ice.”
The Hounds under Dubas are going to play the tough brand of hockey he learned from his grandfather.
“I envision a team with an extremely high amount of grit all the time,” he said. “Our city is seven hours away for most of these teams. It’s not a convenient place to come play. We want a big team that battles and sends the message to the opposition that they’re not going to have an easy night out there.”
It’s a small sample size, but so far, so good. The Greyhounds have five wins in their first eight games to sit fifth in the West. While Dubas admits his dream is to be an NHL GM, his focus is on returning the Greyhounds to the kind of glory days the team hasn’t experienced since winning the Memorial Cup in 1993.
“We’re asking our players to push themselves to get the most out of their potential,” Dubas said, “so how can I preach that without having bigger dreams or goals myself?”