SIX NATIONS — Friday’s deadly crash involving a busload of Jr. hockey players hit a little to close to home for Caledonia Pro-Fit Corvairs general manager, Brian Rizzetto and team owners Jerry Montour and Ken Hill. Riding the busses is usually one of the best and most memorable things about playing Jr. hockey, but in
SIX NATIONS — Friday’s deadly crash involving a busload of Jr. hockey players hit a little to close to home for Caledonia Pro-Fit Corvairs general manager, Brian Rizzetto and team owners Jerry Montour and Ken Hill.
Riding the busses is usually one of the best and most memorable things about playing Jr. hockey, but in this case, it all turned tragic.
“After that tragedy, I don’t think I will be quite as at ease when we get on the bus agin,” said Rizzetto. “I often get on the bus and the first thing I say is, win, loose or whatever. Let’s get home safe. But you never know. I don’t know what happened in this case, whether the bus driver made a mistake or the truck driver.”
He has been working with and developing young hockey talent since coaching Tim Bits in the Brantford Minor Hockey system.
Rizzetto had a good start into hockey, growing up next door to Wayne Gretzky and at times sharing the famous back yard rink Walter built for his boys. In the summer, it was ball hockey in the Gretzky driveway.
Of course, at the time no one knew what would become of that skinny kid, but he was just the neighbour kid.
Rizzetto had opportunity to talk with “the Great One” last weekend at the Masters which he attended with Corvairs owners Jerry Montour and Ken Hill and a few others. After hearing about the accident, they kicked around some ideas about how to help.
“One thing I pitched was to create a fund that would pay for the registration of 15 kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to play,” says Rizz, as most people call him. “Kenny said there is more he wants to do but he is looking into the most effective way to help.”
More locally, Caledonia Corvairs general manager Brian Rizzetto was stunned to hear the news of the crash and brought his focus even more towards the young players in his charge.
“I often get on the bus and the first thing I say is, win, lose or whatever. Let’s get home safe,” says Rizzetto. “But you never know. I don’t know what happened in this case, whether the bus driver made a mistake or the truck driver,” says Rizzetto. “I may never get on a team bus with a clear mind again because of this and I know I’m not alone.”
Rizz joined the Jr. B ranks when Hamilton businessman Nick Pellegrino bought the franchise and put it in the Brantford Civic Centre as the Brantford Golden Eagles. He served as assistant coach under NHL star Jay Wells and others and served as coach from time to time between 2004 and 2009, but his real talent was yet to be discovered.
Although he was kind of assistant coach and GM, he really didn’t have either the authority or the budget to offer young players a professional atmosphere to play in Brantford, which was a struggle.
After Six Nations entrepreneurs Jerry Montour and Ken Hill purchased the franchise, they told Pellegrino they would not be making any changes immediately, which they honoured. But they could also see there was going to have to be some changes the following year after another disappointing season.
“Nick is a good person, and I have total respect for him,” says Rizz, “but I think he overestimated his hockey knowledge.”
The biggest change was to give Rizzetto more responsibility and control of the team. After playing their final season in Brantford, Hill and Montour merged with the Jr. C Caledonia Corvairs, moved the franchise to the Haldimand Centre as the Caledonia Pro-Fit Corvairs of the GOJHL, Jr. B’s.
It was Rizzetto and head coach Mike Bullard who was given the charge of finding a new team. Although many players came to Caledonia with the franchise, Rizzetto had a blank sheet in from of him and was expected to put a winner on the ice, but more importantly, to help these young athletes find their potential in hockey.
Rizzetto is proud of the part the Eagles and the Corvairs have played in nurturing NHL talent. Paul Szczechura went on to a sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning finishing in Buffalo before playing in Europe with his brother Alex, who was also a Golden Eagle standout. Both Adam Henrique and Brandon Montour of the Anaheim Ducks spent time under his oversight for a time. There are others who went on to lucrative careers in Europe as well and he could tell you stories and glories and positive traits about about pretty well every player he had a hand in developing and still sees them as his kids.
The Corvairs also added former NHL veteran Mike Bullard to coach and he and Rizzetto hit it off right away and soon they were making joint decisions regarding the team. Bullard depends on Rizzetto as much as Rizzetto leans on Bullard in making decisions that involve the on-ice team.
That is the part of the job Rizzetto enjoys most.
Maybe it was because of growing up next to the Gretzky’s, but Rizz developed a keen eye for talent. Those little subtleties the offer a glimpse into what potential there is in a young player, but also what kind of person he is, that’s what he sees.
“You look for those subtleties,” he says. “Can they skate, are they afraid, do they have a good hockey I.Q.? There are kids that can be good players by working with them, but there are kids, when you look at them, you know they are never going to play any higher, and I seem to have that ability to pick those kids out and I hope that always stays with me.”
He is training up his son Michael who already seems to have his fathers instincts when it comes to player recruitment and he uses him to help scout out talent.
He says he reached back to retrieve something his father taught him, which was that you only be as good on the ice as you are off the ice. “That is how I’ve tried to live my life,” he says, “and I try to pass that on to these young men.”
When the 2012-13 season opened, Rizz was handed a new team, a new home city, and enough financial backing to do it right, but it’s no free ride in Caledonia.
“I was told that Kenny and Jerry expect me to treat their investment like it was my own investment, and I try to do that,” he says.
And that does not only mean to be responsible to the business aspect of the team, but to also be that way regarding players he will and won’t bring in.
“If someone is here for the wrong reason, they won’t be here long,” says Rizzetto. “We are looking for quality kids to play here. Take sticks for instance. These things are $200-$250 each. If someone breaks his stick playing the game, blocking a shot or taking one, he will have another one in his hands in five seconds. But if you break it over the cross bar or the boards because your angry or something, you buy your own.”
“It’s such a supportive atmosphere here with Kenny and Jerry supporting my decisions, a great volunteer staff that supports the team, we are all supportive of “Bully” (Mike Bullard). It’s all about respect.”
Again, with the recent tragedy in Saskatchewan in mind, Rizzetto wanted to make certain that people know that their team bus is regularly maintained and inspected for the player’s safety.
The combination seems to be working. The Corvairs have already won this year’s Golden Horseshoe Conference Championship and are heading into the Sutherland Cup semi-finals this week. They have won three straight Sutherland Cups from 2014 to 2016, losing a heartbreakers last year, but are favoured to win it back in 2018.
CUTLINE:Photos by Phil Armishaw
General Manager Brian Rizzetto
Head coach Mike Bullard