How the Ottawa Junior Senators built a dynasty

By Rowan McCarthy

The Ottawa Junior Senators (OJS) are a storied junior A franchise that has been a part of the Canadian Central Hockey League (CCHL) since 1979. When he purchased the Ottawa Junior Senators in 2014-15, Martin Dagenais ushered in a new era of success for the junior A club.

Although the team had been competitive in the years prior to Dagenais’ purchase, they had not won a championship since the early 2000s. Sheldon Keefe – the current head coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs – dominated the league that would become the CCHL, as head coach of the Pembroke Lumber Kings winning 5 championships between 2006 and 2011.

This period was followed by Jason Clarke’s Carleton Place Canadians winning four titles between 2013 and 2017. Dagenais’ Ottawa Junior Senators would clash repeatedly with Carleton Place, and eventually replace them as the dominant force in the CCHL.

The Junior Senators are the current champions in the CCHL, winning three Bogart Cups in a row. They have also taken home the Fred Page Cup the last two times it was played. They are currently one of the premiere junior A clubs in the country and are enjoying a period of great success. Examining the changes that came after Dagenais’ purchase is key to understanding how this franchise came to be where they are today.

The 2018 Ottawa Junior Senators after defeating the Carleton Place Canadians in game 5. It was the first championship for the team since 2001.

A Culture Shift

Dagenais had been an assistant coach for the Ottawa Junior Senators prior to his purchase of the team. After buying the team, Dagenais named himself head coach and general manager before getting to work. “The team was pretty good. We had lost two years in a row in the semi-finals. So, for us, it was about how do we get to that next level” said Dagenais.

While the Ottawa Junior Senators were a good team and competed well in the CCHL every year they were not a premiere team. At that time, players were most attracted to teams like the Pembroke Lumber Kings, the Brockville Braves or the Carleton Place Canadians. The goal was simple. “We wanted to make OJS a destination of choice,” said Dagenais.

The first step in becoming a destination of choice was to change the culture around the team. The coaching staff began preaching a new set of values that started and ended with hard work. “Marty always focused on guys who would compete and play the right way … you could be a 50-goal scorer, but if you didn’t play hard defensively then you weren’t our type of player,” said Jamie Mayo the current general manager for OJS.

On and off the ice, it was expected that OJS players would work hard. Not all this work was related to hockey either. The organization believed strongly in the importance of scholastic ability. “We felt that a smart student would make the best hockey player because they could listen and learn, and apply what we teach them,” said Dagenais.

While talent was important, the team also placed a high priority on bringing in well-rounded players. “We put an emphasis on bringing in quality kids. You could be a really good player on the ice, which is great, but if you’re not a good kid off the ice then our organization really doesn’t want you to be a part of it,” said Jamie Mayo.

Perhaps most important of all, these values were universal. “At the junior level, it is difficult sometimes for a coach to hold every single player accountable. On some teams, the star player does what he wants, and we wanted to make sure that this was not going to happen here,” said Dagenais.

It was important that the players be treated equally. No matter how much skill a player had, they were still expected to play the OJS way.

With a new culture established results swiftly followed.

Battles with CP

In the 2014-15 season, OJS managed to make it to the semi-finals where they lost to Pembroke in a dramatic seventh game. Since then, there has not been a year where they did not make it to the finals. In the first four finals appearances for OJS, they would play the Carleton Place Canadians.

“They were really the poster child for doing things right in our league,” said Dagenais. By the time OJS would face Carleton Place in the 2015-16 finals, Carleton Place and their coach Jason Clarke were already back-to-back Bogart Cup champions.

To take down one of the best you must be one of the best, and for Dagenais and his staff being the best has always started with hard work. “The biggest thing for me was to work as hard as Jason Clarke in Carleton Place,” said Dagenais. “He was by far the hardest worker in the league and that’s why he was winning.”

That meant practicing the right way, doing the leg work involved in recruiting players and making sure the team played with discipline and structure. The team would often look to the example set by Carleton Place and adapt it to their own style.

Carleton Place defeated OJS in seven games in their first clash at the end of the 2015-16 season. The two teams would meet again the following year, and for the second time Carleton Place took the victory beating OJS in five games.

In the 2017-18 season, the two teams met for the third year in a row to compete for the Bogart Cup. “There was always that mystique,” said Jamie Mayo. Carleton place had won four championships straight and beating them seemed a daunting task. For Mayo, it all went back to OJS’s performance in game two.

With seconds left OJS manages to tie game two and force overtime.

OJS was down a goal in the last 10 seconds of the third period. They quickly moved the puck up ice, and with mere seconds remaining on the clock managed to tie the game. They would go on to win it in overtime. “I think that really gave our guys the confidence that we could beat this team,” said Mayo.

The series was tight, but in the end OJS ended up beating Carleton Place in five games to bring home their first Bogart Cup championship since 2001.

Game two’s overtime winner gave the team confidence. They would go on to win the series.

Let the Good Times Roll

Since that first win in 2017-18, OJS has gone on to win two more Bogart Cups. In fact, they have won the last three in a row. The only years they have not won was the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons in which playoffs were not held due to COVID-19.

According to Kyle Makaric, the current head coach of the OJS junior A team, their success relies heavily on the same values Dagenais preached after buying the team.

“They [the players] push themselves and each other to new heights every day, and I think that’s a staple of our culture here that Marty started,” said Makaric.

Leadership both from the players and the coaching staff is also important to continued success.

From generation to generation the captains and leaders of OJS have passed on the values the organization was built on. “Our leadership group and players that we have had in previous years set the tone” said Makaric about this year’s success. The leadership group swiftly informed new players that team success relies on a we over me attitude.

OJS’ staff has been very consistent over the last 8 years. Jamie Mayo was hired as an assistant coach in Dagenais’ first season. He has been with the organization for 8-year and is now the general manager.

For Mayo, the same principles that the team preached in 2014 are still present today. “I don’t think we have wavered from that in the eight years. We have stuck to it and what we believe makes a successful hockey team,” said Mayo.

The organization also boasts the longest tenured coach at the U18 level. Steven Malette is the OJS U18 AAA head coach and has been for the past eight years. He instills the same values in the U18 players as are present at the junior A level. His goal is to develop players so they can be ready to play junior A games.

Top down, the organization’s message is consistent. Work hard, play hockey the right way and you will be rewarded with success.

However, that work is never done. Currently, OJS is the top team in the CCHL and are on a seven-game winning streak as they approach the end of the season. They will look to fight for their fourth consecutive Bogart Cup once playoffs arrive.

“The mindset of getting better all the time from the top down is something that pushes our organization … We have won in our league a few years in a row and we haven’t been able to take that next step towards winning the national championship … What we have done before is great, but there is more” said Makaric.