Taking a Chance on Todd
The success of the Peterborough Petes and lengthy list of accomplished alumni reflect the remarkable group of coaches who have left their footprints on the organization. Among this group of men stands Dick Todd, whose time with the maroon and white poses a challenge to briefly summarize.
Like many triumphant stories affiliated with the Petes, Todd’s begins with the core of the club – Roger Neilson. Todd was introduced to Neilson as his baseball coach at ten years old. Dick developed into a professional-level player who signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, however his elite baseball career was cut short by a torn rotator cuff.
Pre-Peterborough the duo’s friendship developed once Dick joined Roger delivering papers with the Globe and Mail, for ten years. Once Roger left for the Electric City, in addition to managing a grocery store in Toronto, Todd inherited his full paper route so that Neilson had something to return to, in the scenario his hockey coaching career with the Petes flopped.
Before stepping onto the bench at the Memorial Centre, Neilson would take sixteen year old Todd scouting for the Montreal Canadiens. Dick, in his teenage years, would also drive players attending school on the Montreal Jr. Canadiens from the airport to their games in Niagara Falls or St. Catharines so that the guys didn’t have to miss any time in the classroom. This attention to facilitating a school-hockey balance would foreshadow Todd’s coaching philosophy ten years later.
After forgoing the paper route in exchange for more time with his wife Mary, and sanity after holding two full-time jobs, Todd became removed from the hockey scene as Neilson became more involved. His six years of a rink-free lifestyle concluded when Roger, upon a yearly visit from Dick, approached him about joining the Petes staff when he decided to leave teaching to pursue the role of general manager and head coach. His offer to Dick was one of a multi-faceted position that involved scouting, selling advertising in the summer, and acting as trainer to the players.
“I jumped on the chance. It was the first year the World Junior tournament was taking place and the Petes were going to Russia.”
If cliches exist because of their truth, in agreeing to Roger’s job opportunity, it’s fair to say for Dick ‘the rest is history’. Todd would be labelled as Trainer in the roster pictures from 1973-1979, acquiring the additional title of Assistant Manager in 1980-1981, then Manager/Head Coach when his understanding of the game and communication style with players proved victorious following a series of losses in the previous season.
Dick believes his acquisition of overage player Larry Floyd at the beginning of his interim role as head coach was the turning point in returning the Petes to the W column.
“He made all the difference in the world and we started to win. I think we won and tied one and won twelve straight after I took over, so that’s how it all occurred,” explained Todd.
Following his dramatic improvement of the Petes’ record, the interim head coach was now offered a permanent role that was welcomed with healthy skepticism.
“I said, ‘Ya, I’m happy to do it, I’m just concerned. I don’t want to lose all employment if things don’t go well so is there employment for me if things don’t go well and they kind of said sure.’ I was able to feel more confident in taking the job as a coach because I didn’t know at the time if being a coach was what I wanted to be doing,” Dick responded.
From an outsider’s perspective – fourteen successful seasons with the Petes, producing some of the most talented players to skate in the NHL, with the second most wins as a coach in OHL history – one would laugh that Dick was ever hesitant stepping into the role, one that his skill set was clearly made for.
Although the statistics speak for themselves, what dominates a conversation with Todd is the pride he takes in the leaders he developed, and his celebration of their influence on fellow teammates while as a Pete and with organizations later in life.
The long time coach reflected on his former players’ character and current success:
“To have a player like Steve Yzerman (’81-’83) who has a successful NHL career, wins Stanley Cups then goes into management and becomes a successful general manager, that’s one aspect. The other aspect is to have a late draft choice, a journeyman hockey player like Dave Lorentz who had a very successful career here, who went on to be a principal here in town.”
He would go on to describe Dallas Eakins (’84-’87) and Kris King (’83-’87) as guys, “who are the salt of the Earth.”
Although Dick, like many coaches, was blessed with talented players who naturally stepped into the role of leaders, he was also presented the opportunity to mold guys with off-ice lessons and conversations, such was the case with Tie Domi.
“Dallas was my captain, and at one point Tie was struggling and I sat him out and he said, ‘I’m going home’. Dallas convinced him to listen to the coach and do what the coach said. Tie stayed because I told him, ‘You are going to be a big fish in a little pond, but you have to be a big fish in a big pond to be successful, so if you don’t stay here you are making a bad decision.’”
Dick continued to explain the challenges that plagued Domi in his rookie year.
“One of the the things we were having problems with was he wouldn’t do the run. He said, ‘My legs are too short, I can’t do the run.’ Everyone was back showering and I tried to drive him home and convince him to go back to the run. Second year, he came back and he was one of the top four runners on the team all year round. He took a complete turnaround in his mental approach, and he’s been very successful.”
Todd’s approach stayed consistent with all players and promoted blending of different personalities.
“I think everybody has an idea what the person you’re dealing with is all about and if you’re, number one, frank with them, and treat them fairly, that hopefully they will gain respect for your decision making and they will follow.”
Dick’s execution of a winning team eventually shipped him to The Big Apple where he joined Petes alumni Colin Campbell and Mike Keenan to take charge of the Rangers, earning a Stanley Cup within the trio’s first season together. After five seasons his role with the red, blue and white would shift to scouting, a position that was unable to fulfill a space that coaching provided:
“I changed jobs there and scouted for several seasons and they still had me under contract if I wanted to continue, but all my life I had been dealing with players and with a team and I didn’t enjoy scouting to that degree. Our daughter had moved out and my wife was home alone. I was gone all the time on the road and for some people they love it. It’s a dream come true but for me it wasn’t the same.”
In 2001 Todd retired and transitioned to the life of a snowbird, travelling seasonally between Florida and Peterborough. However, the life of a retiree didn’t last long for Todd as he returned the club where his hockey career was born.
It didn’t take long for the OHL kingpin’s mark to be felt as in 2004 the Petes clinched a J. Ross Robertson Cup, the second season upon Todd’s return to the coaching staff. His comeback was capped at two seasons, but the impact was monumental for the club and his final record as a coach.
With a minimal hockey background, Neilson and Todd took a mutual gamble on each other, unaware Dick’s move from the big smoke to Peterborough would go on to foster some of the best players in the world, in a city where hockey reigns paramount. Admittedly, Todd experienced backlash for his brief resume in hockey before joining the Petes, however numbers speak and the head coach humbly used them in his favour
“I think some people tried to run you down, ‘What do you know? He’s never played hockey,’ but when you’re successful and you win, they kind of look silly.”
His mark in the OHL joins the ranks of friendly rivals – Brian Kilrea of the Ottawa 67’s and Larry Mavety of the Belleville Bulls. Todd grew with the Petes and his legacy in junior hockey extends beyond the years he stood on the bench, as summarized by Senior Vice President of the NHL and Petes alumnus Kris King (’83-’87).
“You look back on your career and think about the people who were important to your success and Dick certainly was one of the guys who was that.”