Story by Jeff Gard/Total Sports Quinte
Prior to the start of the 2021-22 season, Mike Belej was content with his position on the Quinte West Minor Hockey Association executive as a coach mentor.
“I go to the rink when I can and help out other teams with practices on my own time,” Belej said.
Coaching a team wasn’t on his radar, even when the Quinte West Golden Hawks U15 group found itself in need of a new coach leading up to tryouts. It was a big year for the team, which had been awarded host of the 2022 Ontario Hockey Federation championship. The tournament includes the winners of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association, Greater Toronto Hockey League, the Minor Hockey Alliance of Ontario (ALLIANCE) and Northern Ontario Hockey Association along with the host team vying for the provincial championship.
“We scrambled for a coach and of course they wanted to bring someone in kind of familiar because they knew they were hosting the OHF at the end of the season and this team had a lot of potential,” Belej said.
Suggestions were directed to him that he should coach, but Belej made it clear he didn’t want to. Then he changed his mind.
“You can’t leave them hanging so I took them on a week before tryouts,” Belej said.
What followed was an incredible season, with what Belej estimates is an undefeated campaign of 35 wins, no losses and two ties.
More than the on-ice success, Belej has relished the opportunity to work with an outstanding group of players and parents that he was mostly unfamiliar with prior to joining the team this season.
He was caught by surprise prior to a playoff game on March 24 when the U15 Golden Hawks players taped their sticks in the Ukrainian colours of blue and yellow to show support for their coach and his heritage. They kept it a surprise until Belej entered the dressing room for a pre-game speech.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Belej said. “It was really unexpected, just one of those things that kind of takes your breath away.”
Belej said he grew up with a couple of the players’ parents, which is likely the only way the team would’ve known. What’s happening in Ukraine is big news worldwide right now, he said, but it’s not something he speaks much about, especially to his players.
“I’m very proud of my heritage so I think a few of them knew,” Belej said, noting he has family that are expected to be coming to Canada.
“My dad’s cousins and my second cousins and their kids are over there,” he said. “They’re in Poland right now on their way to Canada hopefully in the next month or so.”
Belej said he received positive feedback from parents this year and was told the players wanted to do something special for him. The coach was honoured by the gesture from his players when they taped their sticks.
“To do that is better than any gift you can buy,” he said.
Support for Ukraine has been outstanding in local Quinte communities, Belej added, with flag raising ceremonies and vigils held with items also being collected to send to Ukraine.
The Ukrainian flag was raised at the Quinte Sports and Wellness Centre, which Belej said was a nice tribute since Ottawa and Belleville Senators owner Eugene Melnyk – who passed away earlier this week – was Ukrainian.
Belej said he was impressed by his U15 Golden Hawks players as well, calling them a mature group. Before becoming their coach, he said people were selling him on how great the players and parents were. Having coached a long time, he knew that’s how most teams are described.
It turned out to be right on point with this team.
“Literally a couple weeks before playoffs, I said to a couple of my assistant coaches, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been involved where all the kids were just good kids,” Belej said. “They’re a tight-knit group of kids and I think it’s because they’ve played together since they were little. There hasn’t been a lot of turnover.”
Belej considers that to be a reflection of a great parent group.
“You look at the kids and they’re a product of their parents,” he said.
Team members for the U15 Golden Hawks are Jack Andrews, Cole Baird, Jacob Brummell, Keagen Carr, Colby Coe, Elijah Davis, Brock Davy, Carson Down, Ethan Kenney, Ethan Lord, Bryce Mitchell, Charlie Mooney, Brody Pilatzke, Dryden Riley, Nathan Sills, Dexter Slone, Avery Wease and Tate Webb. They also have four affiliate players (not pictured): Tyson Gregory, Eli Kenney, Cooper Martin and Brendan Reid.
Having not coached this group before, Belej considered it a fresh start for everyone and told the players the key would be to form their own identity.
“I said I want to see how you play, your tendencies and then we’re going to create an identify for ourselves,” he remarked. “They’re just a hard, hardworking group, but what makes them even better is they’re talented. We’re a pretty tough team to beat when we’re so good skill-wise and they work that hard. We have really disciplined structure. We have game plans and they’re relentless and we stick to it and we’re successful.”
It certainly shows with their record this season.
“The bubble’s got to burst, but it’s a bad time if going to happen now because we’re going into the championships,” Belej said.
Quinte will head to the OMHA U15 ‘A’ championships in Whitby at Iroquois Park Sports Centre this weekend. They open the tournament on Friday at 11:15 a.m. against the Milton Winterhawks and face the Essex-Southpoint Ravens at 4:15 p.m.
Playoff games will be held Saturday and Sunday.
In their local playdowns, the Golden Hawks allowed just one goal in six games to qualify for the OMHA tournament.
“We take pride in our defensive play,” Belej said. “I like our chances. We are ranked No. 1 in the province, but I take that with a grain of salt because this is the best in the (OMHA) now. There’s 12 fantastic teams. It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to work.”
While they are guaranteed their spot in the OHF championship as the host team, the Golden Hawks would prefer to earn their way there as the OMHA championship.
The OHF championship will be held in Trenton from April 22 to 24.