An integral part of the Steinbach Pistons for the past three years, Julien Koga has been forced to leave the game of hockey that he loves so much, and those fellow players that are so much more than just his teammates, because of recurring concussions.
Koga, 19, in his third season with the hockey club, has garnered a tremendous amount of respect, both on and off the ice, because of his demeanour, and his commitment to the community and the team.
Named an assistant captain this year, Koga was a key leader of this hockey club, as he has played a big role in helping the Pistons set the pace all season long in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, a team that is currently ranked fifth in the country.
One of the fastest skaters in the MJHL, Koga said he has had five concussions over the past five years, “one a year dating back to bantam.” A concussion last season nearly forced the Winnipeg native from the game as doctors said it was his decision whether he would keep playing, cautioning that with each subsequent concussion, the symptoms could get worse.
Well it happened again in early January, and this time, with the same advice from the medical staff, he has decided he will not play again.
These last two or three weeks since the decision was made to retire from the game has been an emotional time for Koga, as well as his teammates and others around him.
“I was honoured this year to be named one of the team’s assistant captains,” Koga said in an interview with The Carillon on Monday, “So this is tough not being able to be on the ice anymore.”
“I was really excited coming into the season, perhaps being able to have an influence on some of the younger players as part of the leadership group.”
But he says Coach Paul Dyck has made sure he can still be part of the team in any capacity he chooses, even though he is no longer playing. “I will be with the team and at as many games as I can, both home and away, I hope to still have an influence with some of the guys.”
“It was so much fun this year, the success we are having, it will be a big change of pace for me, it will take a while to adjust,” said Koga, who is now enrolled full time at the U of M studying science after being a part time student the past year and a half while playing for the Pistons.
Koga says he has grown to love Steinbach in his three years here, “my teammates, the fans, my billets, this city has just been incredible, you don’t get this anywhere else in the league.”
He has been working with Dr. Ellis from the Pan Am Concussion Clinic, who is also an associate of Dave Blatz from Eastman Therapy Centre in Steinbach. Blatz is the medical director for the Pistons and conducts all the concussion protocols on each member of the Pistons at the start of every season, “it provides a base line that can be very helpful in diagnosing a possible concussion.”
When Koga made the decision with this family he was going to quit hockey because of further injury, the first people he told in Steinbach, were his billets, Russ and Shannon Dyck, where he spent the past three hockey seasons. “They have been so good to me, like a second home.”
Shannon Dyck says it was a difficult time for all of them, “you become so close to these players, they live with you for eight months of the year, he is welcome back anytime to our home.” Although Koga is back in Winnipeg living with his parents, he expects to crash from time to time, “at his second home.”
Koga also has a relationship with a young boy in Mitchell as a Big Brother and is continuing with that relationship.
Paul Dyck says they will not be naming another assistant captain with Koga’s absence, “partly out of respect for what he has meant to our hockey team, and that is why we have invited him to remain part of the organization.”
“Our priority is Julien’s health,” said Dyck, “this has been a very emotional time for everyone, Julien is a big part of our room, with strong friendships, all of our players have been impacted by this.”
“Paul has been very supportive,” said Koga, “he was a coach I just loved playing for.”
“I have made lifelong friends playing here in Steinbach, players such as Bo (team captain Jordan Bochinski) we have been together for three years.”
As for the current season, that has seen the Pistons lead the league since day one of the season, Koga says “we have all bought into the system, the guys realize we have something special here, it comes through hard work, our work ethic every night. We still have a long ways to go, but I plan to be in Penticton with the boys.” The MJHL champions will represent the league at the Crescent Point Western Canada Cup the first weekend of May at Penticton, and Koga and company have every intention of being there, that is the goal.
“I am proud to be a Steinbach Piston.”
(Article and Photo courtesy of Terry Frey at TheCarillon.com)