HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
In about two months, well-travelled hockey coach Dave Leger of Ottawa will be on the road again. For the ninth season in the past 11 years, he will be head coach of a hockey team that’s not based in Canada.
Following coaching stints in Japan (two), Hungary (two), United States (two) and Poland, Leger, 53, will head to Italy in August to be head coach for the Unterland Cavaliers in the Italian Hockey League (Italy2).
Leger dissolved his contract in December with Dunaujvarosi Acelbikak of Hungary’s Erste Liga. He didn’t feel comfortable in the stagnant organization and the team was struggling on the ice.
But when one door closes for Leger, there always seems to be another one that opens for him. That was the case when he was contacted by an agent who wanted to know what his plans were for the 2021-22 hockey season.
“He forwarded my name to the club (Unterland) and we started talking,” Leger said in a phone interview. “I liked their philosophy and their commitment to growing from within. We had a good, serious discussion.”
Founded in 2019, Unterland plays in the 11-team Italian Hockey League. It hopes to enter its third season with fans in the stands. The Cavaliers were second (9-6-1) in a pandemic-shortened, 16-game 2020-21 season and lost in the semifinals.
“I’m excited. The club I’m going to is a nice marriage with my philosophy,” he added.
The Cavaliers’ organization hopes to develop its players and rally its fan base to apply for entry into the higher Alps Hockey League in the future.
In May, Leger addressed the players, who mainly speak German, but can communicate in English. Unterland is located in Neumarkt, which is situated in the northern Italy region of South Tyrol. German is the predominant second language.
“I did a Zoom call with all the players to tell them what to expect. I followed up with one-on-one chats. It was a chance to learn about each of them. This took a considerable amount of my time over the last few weeks,” he added.
Leger, who has never travelled to Italy, signed a two-year contract with Unterland. He is planning to receive his second COVID-19 vaccine in mid July before joining the Cavaliers.
“It’s a situation I like to go into, where I feel I will have a positive impact,” he continued. “I see this club progressing and moving up and up. We’ll see what unfolds.
“I’d like to help them take that next step, whatever that is. Maybe they want to solidify their spot and win a championship or step up to the Alps Hockey League. I’d like to be an agent to help them move forward.”
The Italian Hockey League allows two imports for each team. Ottawa’s Nathan Pancel, who played for Pergine last season, skated for the Ottawa 67’s AAA U15-U18 teams in 2008-10 and the Central Canada Hockey League’s Gloucester Rangers in 2010-11.
Marc Beckstead of Morrisburg was on the Pergine roster in 2020-21 before signing with Cholet in the France2 league for next season. Earlier, he played for Gatineau Olympiques (2013-15) and University of Ottawa Gee-Gees (2016-20).
Leger coached the Gee-Gees for 11 consecutive seasons, three as an assistant (2000-03) and eight as head coach (2003-11). After his final season, he started his international career with Tohoku Free Blades in Japan’s Asian League.
Coaching in Italy also will allow Leger to reunite with a childhood friend who moved to Italy when they were in Grade 6. They reconnected a few years ago and plan to visit, after Leger settles in Italy.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.