A look back at Dauphin’s last MJHL championship

Courtesy of Doug Zywina, The Dauphin Herald:  

Apr. 3, 2010 was the last time the Dauphin Kings hoisted the Turnbull Trophy as Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions. Friday marked the 10th anniversary of that milestone.
Of course, that was the year the Kings hosted the RBC Cup national championship.
Marlin Murray was the Kings head coach and general manager at the time. With the Kings hosting the RBC Cup, he said there was a bit of pressure to establish a good foundation right from the start.
“We thought we recruited very well in the summertime. Worked extremely hard in June, July and August to prepare for what was ahead of us,” he said.
As the season progressed, the team became a close-knit group.
“What I remember most about the regular season was just the way the team grew and came together as one. Yeah, we were a real talented, efficient, high-octane hockey club. But the character of the guys in the room and the way they came together as a family was unique,” he said.
The toughest part of that season, Murray said, was having to let some good quality players go through trades and releases.
“Obviously, we couldn’t keep everybody,” he said, adding the players he settled on for that season were a mature group capable of coaching themselves.
“They held everybody accountable and when you do that, you know you’ve got something special in the dressing room,” Murray said.
Part of the recruiting process involved looking at 15 to 20 players who would become available from the Western Hockey League.
Over the summer, Murray brought in WHL veterans Bryce Lamb, a forward, and goaltender Joe Caliguiri. Early in the season, he added forwards Mitch Czibere and Cody Esposito and rearguard Joel Kot joined the team at the January trade deadline as a free agent.
Murray said there were a lot of players available from the WHL that year, but he wanted to make sure he brought in the right pieces.
“The players that we brought in, they just had high character. (They) were highly motivated and wanted to succeed and end their junior careers on the right note,” he said.
But Murray was not looking for players who could just score goals.
“You had to have the right fit, the right group of people that brought character, sandpaper, work ethic and skill. So it was a tough task. But bringing those players in, that was a big part of our success, too,” he said.
Dauphin had a record-breaking season in 2009-10, setting club records with 50 wins and 101 points.
In the playoffs, the Kings swept the Neepawa Natives in four straight games and needed five games to get past the Swan Valley Stampeders to win the Sherwood Division crown.
In the final, the Kings swept the Winnipeg Saints in four straight.
The Kings and Stampeders met in the last game of the regular season and the Kings wanted to send a message to their northern rivals. The result was a 9-4 Kings victory, their 50th of the season.
That game also featured a lot of physicality with a few fights thrown in for good measure.
“Once we got through that game, the guys were real, real confident,” Murray stated, adding the acquisition of veteran tough guy Justin Michaud was a big factor in the team’s success, as well.
“We had all the skill in the world. By getting Zeanan Ziemer, that was the last piece of the puzzle and everything came together. But people can’t overlook the Michaud trade. The Michaud trade made everybody bigger. It made everybody stronger. It made everybody taller. It took pressure off of guys like Troy Hunter and Cody Esposito,” he said.
In game four of the final in front of a capacity crowd of 2,132 at Credit Union Place, the Kings found themselves down 3-0 after the first period on home ice and Winnipeg made it 4-0 with a shorthanded goal, 1:11 into the second.
But the Kings battled back to make it a one-goal game going into the third period and, after captain Steven Shamanski tied the game five minutes into the third, Esposito scored what proved to be the championship goal when he beat Winnipeg goalie Justin Leclerc to a loose puck and put it into an empty net with 8-1/2 minutes to go.
Murray remembers Esposito’s game winning goal like it was yesterday.
“Leclerc was a goaltender that played the puck a lot. We knew that and the guys knew that he overplayed it at times and would make mistakes,” he said.
“He came out to play the puck and Espo knocked it down and threw it into the open net.”
Murray also remembers the feeling of lifting the championship trophy during the celebration after the game, noting it made all the hard work of everybody involved with the team worth it.
“That feeling of having that trophy above your head and passing it on to your coaching staff is just a tremendous, tremendous feeling. I’ll remember that forever,” he said.
Caliguiri was named MVP of the playoffs. To this day, Murray believes the Kings had the best goaltending tandem in the league that year, and arguably, the best in the league ever.
“Brett Willows was a heart-and-soul player that you would go to war for. Just a great, great human being. Well respected. His work ethic was incredible,” he said.
“And then we got Joe Caliguiri out of the WHL who was just a kind individual. A hard worker. Everything on the ice was so sound and so smooth. It was almost boring to watch, but that’s just how good he was.”
Due to the playoff format at that time, home ice advantage in the final would alternate between the divisions and in 2010, it was the Saints who had home ice advantage. That did not bother the Kings in the least, however.
“We were a real good road team. So we kind of relished the opportunity to open up on the road,” Murray said.
Of course, Murray could not do it alone behind the scenes. When the Kings were selected to host the 2010 RBC Cup, one of his first steps was to hire David Anning as assistant coach.
Murray had coached against him towards the end of Anning’s junior career with the Saints and liked the way the Winnipegger carried himself.
“I knew that’s a person I want to surround myself with and I recruited him,” he said.
Steve Bray was added as a goaltending coach and was an integral part of the coaching staff and Scott McCallum and Darcy Dawson were brought in to help, as well. And Tyrol Deeg was there to look after all the players’ needs as trainer and equipment manager.
“Our coaching staff was excellent. Real hard working. We had a lot of fun, too,” he said.
What impressed Murray about that team was the way they bought into the common cause.
“We were a firm believer in matchups that year. Every line had their matchup. They had a job to do. It was to outwork the other line. And they bought into that,” he said.
“It didn’t matter if we were at home or on the road, we were matching lines. And it’s hard to match lines on the road.”
It is hard for Murray to believe it has been 10 years. He noted his daughters, ages seven and four, see all the pictures he has on the wall from his time with the Kings.
“It’s kind of neat to look back and reflect, but geez, time sure does go by,” he said.
Dauphin’s Ryan Dreger led the MJHL that season with 53 goals and was second in scoring with 99 points, two behind teammate Shane Luke.
He remembers how close the team was that season.
“We all got along. It actually felt like a real family. I know a lot of people say that, but that year it actually felt like a family. We were really close. There’s nothing we wouldn’t do together,” he said.
Dreger credits Murray for instilling a work ethic in the players which played a key role in the team’s success.
“He never stopped trying to make us better. He made us work for it and we worked for it and got success out of it,” he said.
For Dreger, the playoffs went by quickly, but what he remembers most about the playoffs is the road games and being on the bus with the boys.
“There’s something about that team that year that I just felt really close to everybody,” he said.
Dreger admitted he does not remember the final game against the Saints.
“That was a long time ago. I don’t remember much,” he said.
“I can’t tell you much about that game. I still look at my ring every so often and its kind of hard to think we’d done so well.”
The fact the Kings were hosting the RBC Cup played a factor in Esposito coming to Dauphin early in the season.
The majority of his WHL career was spent on teams near the bottom of the standings, he said.
“So I didn’t get many chances in the playoffs, so I was definitely hungry to go after a championship, that’s for sure,” he said, adding there were a couple of players on the Kings that he had played with before.
“So I was looking forward for an opportunity to play with them, as well.”
Esposito ended up on the third line with Czibere and Hunter, forming a formidable checking line that could also put the puck in the net.
“We just clicked right off the hop. The three of us are all similar players. We’re all kind of a power forward. We all have an offensive touch and we all play the game with speed,” he said, adding they were nicknamed the Red Dragons early in the season and took pride in playing against other team’s top lines, while producing offensively, as well.
It was easy for Esposito to transition onto the team, which was strong on both sides of the puck.
Murray, he added, had a good hold on the team and was leading the players in the right direction.
“So it felt easy to just jump in and pick up where they were already in stride. The regular season was pretty good. It was a lot of fun, that’s for sure,” he said.
The playoff run was a blast, Esposito said, but it was also a battle the whole way through.
“If you just look at our record, it looks like we just skated through everybody. But Swan Valley gave us a pretty good run for our money. They were a good team and we battled with them all year long,” he said, adding it was the same with the opening round series against Neepawa, which was a tough, physical battle.
The Kings had a lot of players with injuries, Esposito said, adding he played with a partially separated shoulder from the first round on.
“It was just a really hard-fought battle and we built a lot of character through the playoffs. Built a really tight-knit group. It was a lot of fun to be a part of,” he said.
Unlike Dreger, Esposito remembers the final game against Winnipeg.
“I can’t forget that one. That was a really special game to come back the way we did. It was real special to me, because I had my dad in the stands. And to be able to score, that was the biggest goal of my career. To be able to score that one felt really good,” he said.
In describing his winning goal, Esposito said his eyes lit up like a deer in the head lights when he saw the puck come off the boards and he knew Leclerc was coming out of the net.
“I just put my head down and fired it as hard as I could. I was definitely lucky to find the back of the net,” he added.
Esposito remembers the feeling when the final buzzer went off signalling the Kings were MJHL champions.
“Once that final buzzer went off and we realized we got the job done, that was an amazing feeling. I’ll never forget how packed that barn was and how loud it was in there. That was a real special moment,” he said.
Other than the hockey, Esposito loved the smalltown atmosphere of playing in Dauphin.
“Playing hockey my whole life, I always found that the small towns were always really into their hockey teams and it was always fun to be part of a tight-knit community like that. I don’t remember any games where there was many empty seats in the stands. It was definitely the funnest, most enjoyable season that I played,” he said.
“All the fans were really behind us the whole way through from the regular season all the way through the playoffs and the RBC Cup. It was nice to be a part of that.”