By Scott Wheeler
April 29, 2017
When Kyle Raftis took over as the Soo Greyhounds general manager for Kyle Dubas in 2014, the two shared more than their given name.
They shared the fact they were two of the youngest executives in the entire sport, bright minds who wanted to spearhead a progressive movement in the hockey world. And together – while apart – they helped build one of Canadian junior hockey’s model franchises.
It started six years ago.
In April of 2011, a 25-year-old Dubas was named the Greyhounds’ GM. Later that year, the Ontario Hockey League hired Raftis, also 25, as its director of recruiting, education service and player development.
Three years later, when Dubas moved on to the Maple Leafs organization as part of president Brendan Shanahan’s dramatic remodeling, Raftis took Dubas’ place in Sault Ste. Marie.
Since then, the pair have kept in regular contact. They both want to see the Greyhounds do well, and they both have a mindset that sets them apart from the old-school mentality that permeates much of junior hockey.
“When you talk about having to be cutting edge, it’s not to do it just to do it,” Raftis said of the way he and Dubas perceive their roles. “We want to be a progressive group.”
“He’s really pushing himself to learn more and pushing himself to always kind of be on the edge of the game and progress himself and help the program continue to progress,” Dubas said of Raftis.
Raftis knew Dubas was a tough act to follow in the Soo when he took the job, but he felt he was up for the challenge. He had watched Dubas progress quickly through the ranks and was excited for his opportunity to do the same.
When Dubas joined the Greyhounds, he inherited a team that finished dead last in the OHL’s Western Conference with just 24 wins in 68 games. After taking steps forward in each of the following three seasons under Dubas’ guidance, the Greyhounds finished with the West Division’s best record in 2013-2014.
By the time Raftis was hired, the team was already well-positioned to contend. But rather than slow down, the Greyhounds continued to climb. Raftis tweaked an aging, dominant core and led the Greyhounds to an OHL-best record the following year (setting a franchise record for points and winning the Hamilton Spectator Trophy as the league’s top regular season team), a first-round upset last season, and another division title in 2016-17 before they fell in six games in the second round to the Owen Sound Attack.
“I remember some people were talking when I was taking the position that thought it was maybe a tougher spot to go into,” said Raftis, now 30. “A gentleman at the league told me at the time that it’s better to wait and see when the situation is really rough somewhere and you can kind of go in and expectations are low. I never felt like that.”
For both Raftis and Dubas, early success in the hockey world didn’t come without obstacles. In a sport traditionally run by an older crowd, being different can be difficult.
“I was always confident in what I knew I could do, but I’m sure there was a lot of doubt,” Raftis said. “Whenever there’s a role that has a management hook onto it or you have to oversee groups of people, people see the age, and they question it. Hockey has long been a sport that has questioned younger people in those roles. That’s just the way it is.”
Before they swapped cities, the two Kyles had already developed a strong relationship. When Dubas was a young GM in the Soo, and Raftis worked in Toronto, they spoke often and connected over their similar career paths.
When Dubas left for the Leafs, Greyhounds ownership asked him to help with the transition to a new GM. He felt Raftis was his natural replacement. Before the following season started, the pair kept a constant dialogue, even as Dubas started a busy new role in the NHL as an assistant GM.
“(Raftis) was immediately one of the candidates,” Dubas said. “I try to stay away, especially in the first year after I left, because I think that it’s his team. I don’t want to impose by being around the team too much. [I wanted to] let him own it, and he certainly has. It has been awesome.”
“(Dubas) was always there for support,” Raftis said. “He has a lot of pride in the Soo, being from there originally. He always wants to see them doing well.”
On the ice, Dubas left Raftis with an older team that was ready to make a push for a championship. But Dubas’ biggest imprint in Sault Ste. Marie was off the ice.
He had built a forward-thinking organization.
“It was a group that was very passionate about hockey [and] they’re not just about being there for anyone in particular,” Raftis said. “It was about a lot of guys working together and challenging each other and that was the reason I was really excited to go to the Soo.
“It’s an organization that has a lot of pride and a lot of history, but I think that if you kind of look back over the last few years, it has very much been on the cutting edge of trying to do things, from ownership right down, that are more on the forefront of hockey.”
Raftis attributes Dubas’ success to surrounding himself with smart people.
“When I got there, it was a group that was hungry, a group that was ready to push each other to get to that next level,” Raftis said. “The way I’ve tried to follow in his career is to just work with really good people that are going to push you and bring in different and new ideas.”
Dubas’ people were so good that some didn’t last long. Then-head coach Sheldon Keefe was given a three-year extension in Raftis’ introductory press conference, but he was quickly poached by Dubas to lead the Toronto Marlies in the AHL a year later. Wes Clarke, one of Dubas’ senior staff with the Greyhounds, also joined the Leafs as a scout.
“I could kind of spell out that I wasn’t going to be around Sheldon very long,” Raftis said. “He was a coach that was really all-inclusive; there was never a stone he left unturned. The relationships he had with each individual player and getting the most out of them, it was awesome to be a part of that process and see him work at it and his relentless approach from video, to teaching on the ice, to meetings.”
Keefe credits Raftis for running with Dubas’ foundation, rather than tearing it down.
“(Raftis) was a guy who was able to recognize the number of innovative things that were already in place in the Soo and left some of those things in place and allowed them to continue to develop,” Keefe said. “But also Raftis was a young guy with a fresh perspective and had the experience of being in the league .”
“When you’re around people like that, you start to see the results on the ice,” Raftis said of what he learned from Dubas and Keefe in his early years with the Greyhounds. “It’s hard to argue about anything they did.”
In a remote market like Sault Ste. Marie, geography and resources demanded ingenuity. The city has traditionally made many prospects and their families hesitant to come, Dubas explained. The majority of OHL players are from Southern Ontario, roughly 700 kilometres away from the Soo, at the mouth of Lake Superior.
Prior to Dubas’ hiring, the Greyhounds had struggled to recruit top talent since the mid-2000s, losing out while wealthier organizations such as the London Knights, Windsor Spitfires and Kitchener Rangers flourished. Even in the early 1990s, when the Greyhounds last won back-to-back OHL titles, Eric Lindros famously refused to sign with the team and joined the rival, more centrally located Oshawa Generals instead.
“In the Soo, you have to do things differently,” Dubas said. “You have to have a real knack for recruiting. (Raftis) has certainly been a natural… That’s been the best part of watching Kyle now for three years from afar is he has his own style. He has his way of managing that has allowed the program to be very successful.”
Each year, Raftis has pushed himself to find new ways to build on the work Dubas started. Dubas’ Greyhounds forced Raftis to be open-minded in approach and execution.
“There’s always transaction costs, whether you’re drafting players or trading for players,” Raftis said. “If you can minimize those costs, that’s the name of the game when you’re a general manager. Anything I can do to help myself and help our group make better decisions and play hockey a way that gets us more wins, that’s what we’re open to.”
While Raftis wants to differentiate himself from his predecessor, he says they share a mentality. He has worked, for example, to build on the analytics department Dubas put in place. The Greyhounds now have two full-time analytics staff – manager Matt Rodell and intern Nick Tassone – that travel with the team as well as several other outsourced part-timers.
“We use it in a lot of ways,” Raftis said. “Being a junior hockey team, with the resources you’re working with, it comes from a lot of different facets. When you’re a smaller staff, the more information you can get, the more people you can have assisting with you, the better.”
Keefe, in his one season under Raftis, took note of the way the young GM was open to being challenged – much like Dubas. “He was able to keep a healthy organization with people that were able to work to together to help move the organization forward,” Keefe said.
The Kyles still talk and frequently exchange text messages throughout the season. Dubas gets out to a lot of Greyhounds games to scout them for the Leafs and asks questions about some of the younger players he’s less familiar with in the OHL.
“Kyle is always going to be involved and have a passion and a soft spot for the Soo,” Raftis said.
After all, the Greyhounds aren’t just any team for Dubas. He laughs when he talks about the organization as a “team” at all.
He began working for the organization when he was 11. By the time he was 17, they’d promoted him to a scouting role. Dubas’ sister, Megan, still works for the Greyhounds, managing merchandise and game-day operations.
“Literally, I grew up working with the team, and it was all I knew in hockey before I went to the Leafs,” Dubas said. “To say it holds a special place in my heart is probably an understatement. It will always mean a lot to me, and I will always feel extremely fortunate that I got my start there.”
Dubas and the Leafs aren’t the only ones who have taken advantage of the Kyles’ relationship. Raftis hired Marlies video coach Ryan Ward as one of the Greyhounds’ assistant coaches last August.
Ward speaks highly of working with both.
“(Dubas) really changed the way I approached my work and how I looked at the game of hockey,” Ward said. “(Dubas) has a charismatic style that makes you want to do whatever you can to help the team and organization achieve success because you don’t want to let him down. Mediocrity and doing the bare minimum doesn’t exist with (Dubas).”
Ward credits Raftis with “tweaking things and pulling the right strings to have sustained success” after Dubas left.
“They are very similar actually – young and enthusiastic leaders that really expect you to be sharp and dial it in,” Ward explained. “They are both very smart, very methodical people.”
While Raftis hopes he has begun to carve out his own path, he’s happy to follow in those footsteps.
“You’re always listening if something opens up, but I’m having a lot of fun here with Soo,” Raftis said. “You never know what’s coming down the line. It could be shortly or a long wait, but you’re improving the team and yourself at the same time.”
Dubas, meanwhile, will never forget his roots.
“I’ve got a pretty good relationship with (Raftis) and I like to stay in touch with him,” he said. “He knows anything I can do to help him help the program there, I would do it. I’ll always owe that to the program. Without them taking a chance on me [as GM] when I was 25, I just wouldn’t be where I am.”
That loyalty means supporting Raftis, too.
“He’s done a fantastic job and I’ve been really, really happy to watch,” Dubas said. “You have to have a unique way of looking at things automatically to have success in the Soo. He has done a great job of doing that.”