Submitted by The Swan Valley Star and Times
One of the most important players in the first season of the Swan Valley Stampeders was technically not even a rookie until the team’s second season. But, no one can deny the impact Mark Agnew had on the Stampeders in their inaugural season.
"I got pulled up for a couple of games midway through the year as an AP (affiliated player), and played the final two or three games where we had to win to make it in (the playoffs), and I think I scored the goal to get us in," said Agnew.
Of course, Agnew did famously score the winning goal late in the last regular season game in Neepawa to lift the expansion Swan Valley Stampeders into the playoffs in 2000, a moment then head coach and general manager Jeff Wiest called one of the most memorable of his career.
"It was a pretty cool experience," added Agnew. "Mitch Fry was a good friend of mine growing up, and getting called up a couple of times I felt a part of it (that expansion team), and Jeff (Wiest) put me out there when things were getting tight.
“I was playing some meaningful minutes and played in some big situations with some good players, and ended up getting a big goal."
As he recalls, Agnew was fed the puck in the slot by David Perrin before he put in under the bar for one of the most iconic Swan Valley Stampeder goals of all time.
"But, I do remember not getting out there for the final two minutes - maybe Jeff wasn't sure about my defensive play just yet," laughed Agnew.
Agnew also played in the post-season that year for the Stampeders, before officially joining the team as a rookie in the fall of 2000. He played two years in the Valley, and was one of the top players in the entire MJHL during that time. In rookie campaign, Agnew finished sixth overall in league scoring with 26 goals and 64 assists for 90 points. He also won the rookie of the year award that season, was a second-team all-star and on the all-rookie team.
In the 2001-02 campaign, Agnew ascended even higher, placing second overall in the MJHL with 32 goals and 77 assists for 109 points, and was again a second-team all-star.
"It was such a fun place to play both years," said Agnew. "The previous year I had a bit of a taste, but then I came in as a rookie not really knowing what to expect.
“There are a few people in my life who have helped give me direction and Jeff Wiest was one of them. He gave me lots of opportunity to succeed, putting me in situations as a 17-year-old to put up some numbers."
Agnew also spoke glowingly about some of the players who helped him put up those gaudy numbers, recalling the likes of Dominic Lacasse, Ricky Kozak, and especially Justin Maier (who he describes as one of the best players he's ever played with).
"We really got along well off the ice, and he took me under his wing, and, in my 18-year-old season, we went on a real tear," said Agnew about Maier. "I look back on that team with only fondness, that's for sure."
Maier and Angew didn't just play together most of the season with the Stampeders. They were also part of that star-studded Viking Cup team which placed fourth at the international hockey exhibition tournament in Alberta.
"We went in early December, and we were playing well together, with a lot of chemistry," noted Agnew. "We both played well at the camp and made the team, and boy was that a lot of fun.
"It was a great group, but we ended up losing the bronze medal game to B.C.," he added. "They had guys like Jeff Tambellini, Gabe Gauthier - guys who went on to have great college careers, and who went on to play in the NHL.
“It was a great experience. We represented the province well, and I made some great friendships – this tournament is in my top ten hockey experiences for sure.”
At the end of his second full season with the Stampeders, Agnew made the decision to play south of the border – first with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL, and later the Fargo-Moorhead Jets of the NAHL. It was tough for Stampeder fans to see one of the best players leave, but the move paid off for Agnew, who went on to earn a scholarship at Quinnipiac University.
“I had talked to a number of colleges after my 18-year-old year, and it wasn’t something they said out loud, but it was implied,” said Agnew, referring to playing in the USHL. “And, to be honest, I had done really well in my first two years in Swan, and I wasn’t too sure what else I could do (in the MJHL) to get to the next level.
“I knew we were going to have a very good team, and I was close with a lot of those players, so it wasn’t an easy decision,” he added. “But, it was so much more accessible for the college scouts to attend (USHL games) and, at that point, I was thinking about what I had to do to get into college.”
Agnew added that the MJHL has made huge strides in terms of getting their players recognized by colleges and getting scholarships.
“They’re doing what they can to keep the players in Manitoba, and I’m all for that,” he said, adding that, when he coached at the college level, he recruited heavily in his home province.
But, before he coached NCAA hockey, he played it. And, when he made his debut at the college level, Agnew became a different type of player. Known for his offensive prowess at the junior level, Agnew was given a different role on his new team, becoming more of a checker and a penalty killer.”
“I obviously would have liked to have been leaned on more for my offensive play, but every kid who’s coming in had pretty good careers in junior,” he said. “It wasn’t easy and I had to earn everything I got.
“When I look back on it though it was a huge success because I got a four-year degree, and having the chance to live in Connecticut - an hour from Boston and an hour from New York – was amazing.”
After his playing days were over, Agnew got his Masters in Coaching Education at Ohio University, and was an assistant there, before moving on to coach at Neumann University.
Angew eventually made his way back home to Canada, and started playing some senior hockey with the Hartney Blues. That allowed him to take part in three Allan Cups, winning it in 2015 as a part of the South East Prairie Thunder in Newfoundland.
“Don Cherry gave me a shout out (on Coach’s Corner) when we won it as I scored the game winner,” said Agnew. “Winning the Allan Cup is one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.
“It was such a great group of guys, and the only reason we were still playing was that we loved to play and we loved to compete,” he added. “Nick Cowan was on the team the year we won it, so there’s another former Stampeder who won the Allan Cup.”
Agnew still plays as much senior hockey as he can, but with a young family that’s not always easy. He added the Hartney team still has plenty of ties to the Stampeders.
“A couple of years ago, one game the starting lineup was Mitch Fry and Rhett Neville on defense, and myself, Nick Cowan and Trevor Derlago at forward,” he said. “So we had five Swan Valley Stampeders on the ice playing for the Hartney Blues. That was pretty cool.”
Despite having left the Valley many years ago, Agnew still has some ties to the area. He still keeps in touch with his former billet hosts – Darcy and Tracy Boychuk.
“Their son Darian was just born when I was there, and now all three of their boys may have a chance to play junior hockey one day,” said Agnew. “They were absolutely phenomenal to me. I had never left home before, and they made the experience what it was.”
Agnew now lives in Brandon, working for New Holland corporate. He is an after sales business manager, and his job duties bring him to the Valley once every two or three months.
“Unfortunately I typically don’t stay as long as I might want to, because I have a one and a half year old and a three and a half year old at home that I try not to be away from for too long,” he said.
Though he spent only two full seasons with the Stampeders, the ties to the team and the community remain strong, and it’s clear Agnew not only greatly enjoyed his time in the Valley, but also the relationships he formed two decades ago.