Story by Peter Ruicci (Independent Media)
Gary Roach was succinct when it came to summing up his time as a member of the Soo Greyhounds.
“There’s not a better story for a local kid to have,” the 46-year-old said of his good fortune in nearly four full seasons of wearing red and white.
Not only did Roach, born and raised in the Sault, get a chance to play for his hometown team, the Greyhounds went to the Memorial Cup during his first two seasons, winning a Canadian championship in 1993.
The talented defenceman also got a chance to play for Ted Nolan, who, before he went to the NHL, would pilot the Hounds to the only Memorial Cup title in franchise history.
“I feel fortunate I was able to stay home, playing in front of family and friends night-in-and-night-out. It was great, I loved it,” said Roach, who joined the team as a 16-year-old in time for the 1991-1992 Ontario Hockey League season. “I was fortunate this was a very-strong team when I joined it. And being a native kid, obviously, for me, being able to play for Teddy brought a little more comfort.”
Roach played two years of bantam hockey for Soo Legion under the watchful eye of local coaching legend Mike Zuke.
An impressive prospect, he was chosen by the Hounds in the second round of the 1991 draft as an underage player and went straight to the OHL without spending any time in midget hockey. During that era, teams were able to select a maximum of two underage (16-year-old) players, as long as they were plucked in the first three rounds.
During the 1990-91 campaign, Roach remembers going to Hounds games as a fan, while saying he was “kind of in awe” watching that team eliminate Eric Lindros and the Oshawa Generals in six games in the league finals.
One year later, as a first-year player, Roach was impressed by the Greyhounds veteran leaders, a group which helped the team win its second consecutive league title.
“We had (Rick) Kowalsky, (Mark) Matier, (Drew) Bannister, Ralph Intranuovo and (David) Matsos. They were fabulous guys away from the rink as well as really-good hockey players,” Roach recalled. “We were a tight-knit group and it was a great experience for me, watching and learning.”
One of those he learned from was Wawa’s Chris Simon, who had joined the team in a trade with Ottawa early in the ’91-’92 season.
Simon “was in his last year in the OHL, he was a high NHL draft choice (second round, Philadelphia in 1990), he sat with me on the bus and we talked a lot,” Roach recalled. “He took me under his wing to an extent.”
As an OHL rookie, Roach got his feet wet, while producing two goals and nine assists in 41 games. After defeating North Bay 4-3 in the best-of-seven league final, the Hounds advanced to the Memorial Cup final in Seattle.
However, locked in a 4-4 tie with Kamloops of the Western Hockey League, the Hounds surrendered a late goal – Zac Boyer scored with 14.6 seconds left in regulation – and lost 5-4. It was a crushing defeat.
“We had some unfinished business,” Roach said of the feeling going into the ’92-’93 season.
The Peterborough Petes, he added, were favourites to win that year’s OHL championship. But before the league final was played, the Hounds swept the Petes in four straight to win what was dubbed the Super Series, and the right to play host to the 1993 Memorial Cup.
“Sweeping that series really set the tone for us,” said Roach, who produced four goals and 27 assists in 65 regular season games. “It gave us the belief that we were going back to the Memorial Cup.”
Peterborough eventually won the league title, beating the Soo in five games.
The arch-rivals would meet again in the Cup final. And on May 23, in front of an electric Gardens crowd, Intranuovo scored twice, Jeff Toms had three assists and Kevin Hodson was brilliant in goal as the Soo secured a 4-2 victory.
“We always seemed to be the underdogs, but we succeeded,” Roach said. “When I reflect back, I realize how good we were. We were a tight team and I have great memories. That season was probably the most fun I ever had in junior hockey.”
With the Hounds struggling during the ’94-’95 campaign, the club asked Roach if he’d prefer being dealt to a contender at the trade deadline. He agreed, saying such a move “would be good for me and good for the Greyhounds.”
Roach was dealt to North Bay, where he wrapped up a four-year career which included 18 goals and 110 assists in 216 games. He had performed well enough to be taken by the New York Rangers in the fifth round (No. 112 overall) of the 1993 NHL draft.
After eight minor league seasons, he called it a career.
Employed as a service technician with Shaw Communications locally, Roach and his wife, Christy, are parents to 27-year-old Dustin, Avery, who’s 20, and 15-year-old Evan, a defenceman with the Under-18 Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North U18 League.