Johnny Duco: A Hockey Journey

Johnny Duco always wanted to be a teacher and he thought he’d have to give up on his hopes of playing pro hockey to chase that dream. But he wasn’t ready to give up on hockey. So he figured since he’d always dreamed of being a teacher, ‘why not teach hockey?’

Johnny Duco spent his childhood growing up in The Beaches of Toronto. He was born into a hockey family, his father a coach and his mother a strength and conditioning trainer. He would inherit his love for the sport from his parents as would his brother, Mike. He started off playing minor hockey with the Wexford Raiders before moving on to the Toronto Young Nationals. He was a journeyman when playing Junior A hockey, moving across the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League (now OJHL) from the North York Rangers, to the Wexford Raiders, to the Thornhill Rattlers, and eventually to Stouffville to play for the Spirit. He racked up 35 goals and 97 points in the OJHL and is play was impressive enough to earn himself a scholarship to Oswego State to play hockey in the NCAA. After two seasons with Oswego he moved on to Buffalo State where he played another two seasons with the Bengals.

“The players tasted the success and they wanted more… We were a force to be reckoned with.” – Johnny Duco on his time with the Bradford Rattlers

As he finished college he was left at a crossroad. Would he try to go pro or would he pursue his dream of becoming a teacher? He chose to continue with school and get his masters in education to pursue his dream. But, Duco was left with an itch. He couldn’t just walk away from hockey. That’s when he decided to give it his first shot behind the bench, serving as assistant coach of the North York Knights (formerly the North York Rangers), a team he’d played for in Junior A. After three years with the Knights, Duco moved to the Greater Metro  Junior A Hockey League (GMHL) where he took the position of assistant coach for a season with the Bradford Rattlers. To put it lightly, he was impressive in his first season with the Rattlers. So much so that he was promoted to the position of head coach for the next season. Duco saw even more success in his second GMHL campaign, leading the Rattlers to their best season ever, going 42-0-0. He followed up this record setting season with a league championship and Russell Cup win. What many GMHL fans may not know is that this undefeated season almost never happened. The Rattlers came close to starting the season with a loss. In the very first game of the year, the Rattlers were deadlocked at 0-0 with the Bracebridge Phantoms, and with only ten seconds left in the game the Phantoms nearly scored. They were stopped only by the post. The Rattlers managed to hang on until overtime, where they scored on their first shift, setting the tone for the rest of the season. “The players tasted the success and they wanted more… We were a force to be reckoned with.” Duco said of his historic season and most fans would agree. Duco was well loved by Rattlers fans, and fans of rival teams dreaded seeing him at their arena. “I hated him, his team was so good,” said South Muskoka Shield fan Alex Gallacher.

(Duco and his historic 2012-13 Bradford Rattlers team)

After leading the Rattlers to one of the most successful seasons in junior hockey history, Duco got into contact with Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Hockey legend, and then Ryerson Rams head coach, Graham Wise. After a month of talking with Wise, the Rams decided to bring Duco on, hiring him as an associate coach. He would fill that position for three years, before Wise decided to retire. After 35 years, he retired as the longest serving coach in CIS history, spending time behind the York Lions, UofT Varsity Blues, and Rams’ benches. Along with his long tenure, Wise retired as the second winningest coach in CIS history with 407, behind only U of Saskatchewan’s Dave Adolph. Wise was a mentor to Duco, teaching him to be organized and how coaching students was different than regular players. Duco has nothing but praise for Wise, likening him to a chess player, and saying that he is the most organized person he’s ever met.

“Day in, day out he’s the biggest influence I have.” – Johnny Duco on the impact his brother has had on his coaching career

Wise had a great impact on Duco, dwarfed only by the impact his brother had and has on him. “He’s the number one person I learn from,” Duco said about his brother, Mike. Johnny and Mike had a great relationship from a young age. They played hockey on the same team and line as children and the friendly competitiveness they have carries over to today when they’ll give each other a friendly ribbing after a game in their summer men’s hockey league. Mike had a couple of brief stints in the NHL with the Florida Panthers and Vancouver Canucks, which were both a learning experience for him and for Johnny. Mike would call his brother after practices to break down drills that they had done and to tell Johnny what he could be doing better. “Day in, day out he’s the biggest influence I have,” Johnny said of his brother. Mike even joined the Rams for one game as an assistant coach while Wise served a suspension. It was dumb luck that he was with the Toronto Marlies at the time and fate that he wasn’t able to play in the team’s game due to an injury he had sustained. Mike’s insight helped Johnny grow as a coach and helped the Rams to a win.

(Mike Duco with the Florida Panthers)

Mike, like Johnny, is now trying his hand as a coach. He’s currently working with the Elmira Jackals of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). Neither brother would have been able to predict that they’d be in the positions they’re in now. Johnny only took interest in coaching in college, as he found himself paying more attention to the drills, the quotes of the day, and making line predictions to see how close he could get to the actual line combos set by the coach. “I started paying attention to more of the details, and I kind of thought to myself ‘I’d like to do this,'” and that was the spark that ignited his coaching career.

(“Why not teach hockey?”)

Johnny was recently promoted to interim head coach of the Ryerson Rams, and although his future with the team isn’t cemented, some, like Rams commentator Victor Findlay, believe he only needs to continue what he’s been doing to solidify his position as head coach. His start to the season has been a great one. The Rams and Duco currently sit first in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Hockey West, with 23 points and an impressive 11-2-1 record. What are his goals for the season? “We’ve set out expectations to win the OUA West, and anything short of that is just a disappointment,” he said.

So what’s next for Johnny? Nobody knows. What we do know is that his hockey journey isn’t over just yet.

Chris Carnovale is the “Carnovale Files” columnist for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can follow him on twitter @Chris_Carnovale

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