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Former coach predicted trouble ahead for Downie

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Moe Mantha knew Steve Downie was trouble and would be in trouble again. That's why Mantha and the rest of the Windsor Spitfires' management sat down two years ago and recommended the talented but temperamental Downie "participate in the completion of a personal counselling program."

The recommendation was passed along to David Branch, the commissioner of the OHL, and to Hockey Canada, which was considering Downie for its world junior team.

Was anything done?

"Basically, it was ignored," Mantha said. "The league he came from, they don't teach the players enough about how to respect an opponent. They had a chance to stop it. This is not the first time Downie's been called to a commissioner for his actions."

After his head-jarring hit on Dean McAmmond of the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, Downie is now bound for the offices of NHL vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell.

What Downie did — hitting McAmmond high, after the Senator had given up the puck and was vulnerable — has aroused the hockey world and raised some familiar questions: Why does trouble always follow the hard-luck, pestering Downie? Why can't he play within the rules?

In the OHL, Downie was suspended multiple times for jumping opponents, arguing with referees, instigating fights, bullying, punting a helmet and tossing water bottles. He even fought one of his teammates. It was that incident that precipitated Mantha's firing as the general manager and head coach of the Spitfires.

Asked whether the OHL and the various teams Downie played for did enough to help him control his emotions, Branch offered an emphatic yes.

"I had a kitchen table meeting with Steve," Branch said. "I talked with his mom. We supported him as best we could and at no time did we abdicate our role in helping him develop."

Asked whether Downie completed the suggested counselling program, Branch said he couldn't discuss a player's personal matters.

When Downie cross-checked Akim Aliu in the mouth during a Windsor practice in 2005, it started a fight that was caught on video and shown across the country. The confrontation was caused, in part, by Aliu's refusal to follow Downie's orders when it came to hazing, a frowned-on junior hockey ritual that even Wayne Gretzky endured.

Downie badgered rookies and with the help of a few teammates made them cram naked into the small bathroom on the team's bus. When the OHL learned of the hot-box treatment, it threw down the book: Mantha was suspended as the GM for one year and as the coach for 40 games.

He was later fired by the Spitfires, despite having had no knowledge of the hazing. His words at the time were prophetic: "We haven't heard the last of Steve Downie. He'll be in trouble again."

And now as an erstwhile member of the Philadelphia Flyers, Downie is indeed in hot water again. Mantha wishes only that the OHL had cracked down harder on Downie rather than issuing a string of short suspensions.

"Downie orchestrated the hazing situation [in Windsor]," Mantha said. "He was never held accountable for it. I was. If the proper steps had been taken to hold this kid accountable, [the hit on McAmmond] might not have happened.

"I believe when these kids learn to play, learn to respect their opponents, that's when they should be held accountable," Mantha added. "They always talk about development, how the OHL is a breeding ground for the NHL. Kids should be taught this is what it takes to be a pro, on and off the ice."

Branch took exception to those words.

"[Mantha] had no idea what took place or what the Peterborough Petes, Kitchener Rangers and the OHL did to support Steve," Branch said. "[Mantha] was out of our league."

Most hockey people are aware of Downie's childhood and how he watched his father die after a car accident and how he needs to wear a listening device to overcome a hearing problem. That said, there are still rules on how to play the game and Downie has a track record of breaking those rules when it suits him.

The Flyers acknowledged that recently when GM Paul Holmgren said: "The maturation process is still ongoing with him. I think its more emotion than anything. A guy looks at home on the ice and he takes offence to it. ... We're working with him in a lot of different areas."

McAmmond was released from an Ottawa hospital yesterday morning after being checked by doctors. He suffered no fractures and was scheduled to continue his treatment with the Senators' medical staff.

The concern is that McAmmond also suffered a serious concussion in the 2007 Stanley Cup final when hit by Anaheim Ducks defenceman Chris Pronger.

The Senators had yesterday off, but head coach John Paddock will have an update on McAmmond's condition today.

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