Handful of MJHL coaches chime in on the league overall and where it’s headed as another regular season is about to get underway.
By Lanny Stewart
It’s almost time to raise the curtain on another MJHL regular season and coaches around the junior A league are preparing their respective teams for what they hope will be a successful year both on and off the ice.
“I think there’s always that excitement and at the same time, uncertainty,” said Blake Spiller, the long-time bench boss of the Portage Terriers. “We’re not really sure what our group is going to be like, and at the same time, you never know what other teams are going to be like until you start playing.”
Spiller is among a handful of veteran coaches in the league who say the game has changed since they first started coaching in the league.
“With the limited number of fights now, you need guys who can play hard and you need them to play a regular shift as well,” said Spiller, who is entering his 13th season as the club’s head coach. “Back in the day maybe when I first started, teams had guys on their teams just to look after that role, so the game’s obviously gotten quicker as everybody knows.”
Doug Hedley, who is back for this third stint as coach of the Dauphin Kings, says the league has gotten younger since he first started coaching in the junior A circuit.
“There’s also more Manitoba talent within the league – 17-year-olds who are Division 1 prospects – so that’s a plus. The focus has been on development to the next level and it’s clear every program in the league is doing a good job in that aspect.”
Recruiting over the years has also gotten better, Hedley says, and that it’s helped improve the overall parity in the league.
“It was for the most part last year,” he said regarding the overall competitiveness level of each squad. “There’s a lot of talent in the league and I think everybody is in the mix to start. It’s an exciting time.”
Billy Keane, head coach of the Winnipeg Blues, agrees with Hedley’s sentiments in that the MJHL is finding ways to integrate more younger players into their programs.
“I think the likes of the Western Hockey League and the NCAA are happy to see this trend,” he said. “There’s more and more 17 and 18-year-olds playing in our league, which I think is exciting for people that are watching, including the fans and the families. To me, that’s the biggest difference now, and because it’s getting younger, it means the young guys are getting a chance to play as opposed to paying their dues so-to-speak and are maybe getting to play in certain situations that weren’t being presented to them in the past.”
Paul Dyck, head coach of the defending league champion Steinbach Pistons, reflected on a recent conversation he had with a friend, a former MJHL player, regarding the overall talent level in the MJHL these days compared to when he played in the league.
“He hadn’t seen our league in a number of years and he just couldn’t believe how much it’s changed the last seven, eight, nine years,” Dyck said. “I definitely agreed with him. I think our camps have gotten deeper, there’s not the fall-off that we used to see from maybe the top six forwards to the next 10 or 12 (forwards). It seems like every year the younger players are more skilled and are better prepared physically.”
‘Staying ahead of the curve’
As players evolve, so do the coaches. With another regular season around the corner, coaches around the league are doing their best to prepare with a better array of tools to help assist them, Dyck says.
“I think in general everybody in the game is more prepared than they were in the past with the tools that we have available to us in terms of video,” he said. “Now with HDTV, the quality of the games that we can pre-scout make it easy to watch games, so I think the teams are just more prepared.”
Troy Leslie, head coach of the Virden Oil Capitals, agrees.
“The athletes are just getting better and better all the time and as coaches, you want to make sure that you’re staying current, that’s why there’s coaching clinics in the summer and there’s opportunities for development that way. You’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve.”
Dustin Howden meanwhile, is one of the newer faces when it comes to the coaching fraternity in the MJHL, as he’s entering his third year as coach of the Neepawa Natives. He says he’s really enjoyed going head-to-head with the long-time bench bosses around the league – but at the same time, understands it’s about continuing to grow as a coach and this means learning new concepts and bringing new tactics to the table.
“I’m one of the young guys getting into it with a few others around the league and still have to take a lesson or two from the guys who have been around, but at the same time, I’m hoping I can bring some new ideas with our players and make those guys scratch their heads a little bit too.”
The MJHL would like to wish all the coaches and teams luck as we embark on another exciting regular season!