David Branch is a busy man – he has been commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) since 1979, and took on the duties of Canadian Hockey League (CHL)
president in 1996, replacing the legendary Ed Chynoweth.
He’d be the first to tell you the job has been anything but the same over the years.
“One of the great things about being involved in hockey at our level is the agenda changes ... if not daily, certainly weekly and monthly,” says Branch.
“There’s always something new, always a big challenge, always something exciting. It doesn’t seem like you’re doing the same thing over and over. For that
reason, you keep focusing on the present and the future. I have not really had the occasion or opportunity to look back in terms of my own personal
involvement in the game.”
Whenever someone is bestowed with an honour like the Order of Hockey in Canada, it’s natural to look back. And whenever Branch gets the chance, he best set
aside a good chunk of time.
Born in Bathurst, N.B., Branch, like many Canadian kids, started playing minor hockey at a young age. He developed his hockey skills enough to earn a
scholarship to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and, after that, relocated to Whitby, Ont.
Soon after, Branch’s off-ice hockey career kicked into gear.
From 1974-77, Branch served as secretary/manager of the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA). He was executive director of the Canadian Amateur Hockey
Association from 1978-79 before adding OHL and CHL leadership positions to his impressive résumé.
“Like most young Canadian boys, I played minor hockey and I wanted to play in the National Hockey League,” says Branch. “I feel fortunate that I came to
the realization that I really didn’t have what it took to play professionally so I then set my sights on the business side of the game.
“One of my mentors was Jim Gregory (a 2015 Order of Hockey in Canada honouree) and at that time he was the [general manager] of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He
provided me an opportunity to interview for a position with the OHA and I was fortunate enough to get that.”
Along the way, there are countless highlights for Branch, from handing out the hardware at a number of Memorial Cups, to overseeing the growth of the OHL
from 12 to 20 teams, to being a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee.
When asked to select a couple of major highlights, Branch focuses on areas that benefitted the players.
The CHL is the No. 1 breeding ground of NHLers on the planet but there are countless junior players who don’t make it to the professional ranks. The
scholarship program – started in 1982 – is in place to ensure those players have other options.
“All three leagues (the OHL, WHL and QMJHL) are providing a scholarship program to our players,” says Branch. “That’s critical to the growth and
development for the players who don’t go on to play professionally. It gives them an opportunity to develop further life skills.”
Branch is also proud of the OHL’s work when it comes to player safety.
“The OHL was the first league in 2006 to state that there is no such thing as a legal check to the head,” he says. “It was met with some skepticism in some
quarters. I think that it clearly showed that it did not take away from our game and, more importantly, it was for the safety and the well-being of the
players. It’s evolved from there. It’s really good to see how hockey has embraced a number of initiatives around the safety elements.”
Branch can also take credit for growth of junior hockey. The OHL, as mentioned, has gone from 12 to 20 teams under Branch’s guidance. The entire CHL,
though, has grown leaps and bounds in his time as president and you need only to look at the coverage that junior hockey gets on the television screen
“Moving away from on-ice, you get into the side of growing and developing national, regional and local broadcasts arrangements which help us create
awareness, help us secure the necessary sponsorship support for our league and team operations,” says Branch. “The special events area has been a benefit
to us and they continue to grow and evolve for a lot of reasons. That has been a real positive development.”
Despite all of this (and more), Branch still finds time to coach minor hockey. The father of three boys – Barclay, Kyle and Wade – he has continued his
involvement in the Whitby Minor Hockey Association. He has been behind the bench of a number of Whitby Wildcats AAA teams and, these days, he’s able to
coach with his grown-up sons.
“I’ve got three boys and two of them work closely with me with the Wildcats. I’ve coached with all three at different times,” says Branch. “They do the
lion’s share of work and I now use it for, more than anything else, mental therapy. When you skate around at practice, all the challenges of that day are
For Branch, coaching minor hockey is the best of professional development, as he gets to hear from current players and parents on where they see the game
Through it all, he has kept the word ‘integrity’ in the back of his mind. He says he’s charged with preserving the integrity of the game of hockey and that
all decisions – popular or not – are made with that in mind.
So what does it mean to Branch to be named a Distinguished Honouree of the Order of Hockey in Canada?
“It’s hard to put into words. I’m overwhelmed with being recognized with the people that have gone before me, with the people that are in the same class as
myself,” he says.
“It does cause me to say I’m not sure I fit into that stratosphere with the likes of a Mario Lemieux or a Bob Nicholson or a Geraldine Heaney. And you look
back at Jean Béliveau and Pat Quinn. To me, it’s absolutely incredible to think that I am being recognized with the likes of those people.”