It’s cold and crisp in the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre Arena. The rink is filled with the skates digging, scraping and slashing their way through the ice as young hockey players complete drills under the watchful eye of Troy O’Toole.
O’Toole guides the group through their drills, periodically pulling a player aside to give quiet advice. After more than 20 years of coaching in Prince Rupert, he says constantly finding new things to teach and share with his players gives just as much satisfaction as when he first started.
“I constantly want to learn,” he said. “Just because I’ve been doing this for a long time doesn’t mean that I’m not going online to find a new drill and new information to pass on.”
O’Toole is a lifelong learner, traveller and explorer whose experiences have shaped both his coaching style and outlook on life. Born in Campbellton, New Brunswick, O’Toole moved often as a young man as his father — a consultant in the pulp and paper mill industry — took on opportunities in different parts of the country and the world. His experiences before he was in Grade 9 include being evacuated from Iran during the revolution of 1979 and windsurfing in Turkey while living in a mosaic of international culture.
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“It was sort of like a mini U.N.,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole’s family returned to Canada where he completed high school before joining the armed forces, serving with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry from 1988-1991 in Victoria.
While stationed in Victoria, he met his future wife Allison, and the two decided to move to Prince Rupert after he completed his contract as she had received a temporary position with the local school district.
“Initially, we were only supposed to come up for a one-year teaching contract,” he said. “But we ended up staying over 25 years.”
O’Toole worked at Save-On-Foods — then called Overwaitea — for the next nine years before deciding to go back to school to get his teaching certification. He went on to work in School District 52 as a teacher before switching to become a counsellor, but it was during his time at the grocery store that he was introduced to the team he would continue to coach for 21 years.
In 1996, O’Toole’s co-workers were looking for extra volunteers to help coach Prince Rupert’s women’s hockey team — the Prince Rupert Raiders — in case one of the main coaches had a scheduling conflict. O’Toole, who had both played and coached minor league hockey, was more than willing to help. He attended the first few practices mainly to observe and assist, but as time went on he began to take on more responsibilities.
“They just need an extra body to help out there,” he said. “And as the years progressed I kind of took on the lead coaching role.”
O’Toole said the community and camaraderie of the group is really what stood out to him as he spent more time around them, and the connections formed amongst the team went beyond playing the game.
“With these guys, it’s more than just going out there and showing them drills and the game of hockey,” he said. “It’s supporting each other with things like birthdays with the kids. It’s a captivating sort of environment where you go there and you feel good afterwards.”
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The Raiders have competed in regional tournaments, placing silver in the B.C. Winter games and earning a reputation as one of Northern B.C.’s most fearsome teams. O’Toole is quick to turn the spotlight away from himself to his players who he says are always open and willing to learn.
“Some started later in life,” he said. “Some in their 20s, some in their 30s, and when they go out there, they’re giving it 100 per cent.”
Twenty-one years after stepping into that first practice, O’Toole says it’s the memories, enthusiasm and community in the team that keeps him coming back.
“If I dreaded going to practice, I wouldn’t have stuck around for this many years right?” he said.
O’Toole said he will continue to coach as long as the team will have him, and as long as he feels he has something to share with them.
“It’s about the team and are they still learning from me,” he said. “The more knowledge I can pass on to them, the better off they’re going to be.”