Pittsburgh Penguins: Junior passion

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ERIE, Pa. -- Sherry Bassin, the enthusiastic general manager of the Erie Otters, is nearly six decades older than star center Connor McDavid, and yet he has no trouble getting as giddy over the 15-year-old as if he were in the same age bracket.

"I don't want to put a label on him, like the next [Sidney] Crosby or the next this, but I'll tell you what -- he's got a lot of characteristics, and he's a special person," Bassin gushed recently. "So there's a real comparison."

McDavid, who will be eligible for the 2015 NHL draft, had four goals, nine points in seven games entering the weekend. He's already 5 feet 11, 170 pounds. He's crafty and quick, playing with and against guys up to 20 years old.

He's a big name already across Canada, where you can regularly watch his highlights. Reporters from his native country have been regularly visiting Otters games -- something Penguins fans can do with an easy drive north during the NHL lockout.

"If Connor McDavid was playing basketball, this whole country would know about him," Bassin said. "You have to understand -- he's coast to coast in Canada. It's like when [LeBron] James was coming up in basketball, everybody knew him in the country."

At 73, Bassin has seen a lot of phenoms come through major junior hockey. Erie is in the prestigious Ontario Hockey League, and Bassin has been the GM since the club's inception in 1996.

He has a wide and varied past -- "I'm really a retired professor," he said -- but is as closely aligned with North American junior hockey as anyone over the past several decades.

Bassin dipped his toes in at the NHL level for a short time -- two seasons as assistant GM with the Quebec Nordiques -- but junior hockey has been his calling, at least as far as his sports career.

As a coach or GM, he has won two gold medals for Canada at the junior world championships, five league championships, a Memorial Cup in six trips to that junior title tournament, numerous individual management awards and has even done some color commentary on TV.

Along the way, he's developed an infectious personality and a knack for storytelling. Longtime Penguins fans might relate to this: Bassin could be called the Eddie Johnston of junior hockey.

In fact, Bassin has a favorite story about Johnston, a former goalie, coach and general manager in the NHL.

"I get on the [hotel] elevator in Detroit -- I don't know what game I was there for -- and he's on the floor in the elevator packing his suitcase," Bassin said, barely able to get the words out through laughter.

"I said, 'What the hell?' He said, 'I'm late.' This is before the airport security. He said, 'My plane's leaving in an hour,' and he's finishing packing on the elevator. Only him. I just love him to death. That's what's so good about our game. There's so many good people like Eddie Johnston."

And Bassin.

This is a son of Russian immigrants who grew up in rural Saskatchewan long before the Internet, video games or even much in the way of television.

"If you didn't play hockey, you died of boredom. Let's be honest," he said.

His parents insisted he pursue an education, and he reached a point where he agreed.

"That was when there were only six [NHL] teams," Bassin said. "The good thing is, when I got to a certain age, I realized I wasn't that good so I had better get an education."

He has a pharmacy degree, a master's in hospital administration and a law doctorate. He taught law and management in college in Canada.

"My students, when they didn't think they were well prepared, they would ask a hockey question about four minutes into class, and that would take about 20 minutes so we wouldn't get to cover all the material," Bassin said.

But there has always been hockey, and Bassin learned long ago how to manage teams of predominantly teenagers.

"We have only four rules on our team -- don't embarrass the team, don't embarrass the community, don't embarrass your family, don't embarrass yourself," he said. "You break one of those four rules, you get a see-me call, and I'm not happy even when I'm happy."

That last statement is a bit tough to believe when you encounter Bassin while he is wearing his junior hockey ambassador attire.

He just wishes the competitive nature of major junior hockey was better understood across the United States.

"They hear that Connor McDavid is here playing junior hockey, they think we've got sticks upside down," Bassin said. "That's the connotation."

For the real story, you only have to ask Bassin.

A hockey fix?

• Team: Erie Otters, members of the Ontario Hockey League major junior circuit.

• Players: Ages 16-20.

• Home: Erie Insurance Arena. Tickets range from $10-$16.50.

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