By Lanny Stewart
MJHL Web Correspondent
Since its inception, player development has always been a major emphasis when it comes to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Just read the opening sentence of the junior A hockey league’s mission statement and you’ll quickly get a strong sense into what the MJHL is all about: “To provide each MJHL player with an elite hockey development experience with a strong emphasis on education and positive citizenship.”
“The MJHL and its member teams work tirelessly to provide players with the tools, knowledge, training and experiences to allow them to succeed in hockey and in life,” said Kevin Saurette, director of operations for the MJHL. “When players do earn the opportunity to move on, whether it’s the NCAA, WHL, USHL or Canadian University, it’s one of the most rewarding aspects that the league and teams can provide.”
Each year, there’s a long list of players from the MJHL who take the next step in their respective careers – and this past season was no different. Included in the list of 2017-2018 MJHL commitments were three players who had stellar rookie campaigns: Justin Lee of the Virden Oil Capitals, Matthew Thiessen of the Steinbach Pistons and Matthew Osadick of the Swan Valley Stampeders.
Lee, 18, recently committed to the University of Denver Pioneers Division 1 men’s hockey team after a fantastic first year in the MJHL. The smooth-skating blueliner had seven goals and 35 points in 57 regular season games. He also made an impact in the postseason as well with six points, helping lead the Oil Capitals to an MJHL championship final appearance.
“When it comes to the MJHL, I learned to play a faster game and go up against bigger stronger players,” said Lee, who was named the MJHL rookie of the year in February. “The league has helped my development a ton.”
Lee wound up getting invited to the Canada West team selection camp for the World Junior A Challenge in early December. Approximately a month and a half later, he found himself taking part in the MJHL/SJHL Showcase, which is always a great way to get noticed by scouts. He says he appreciates what the MJHL has to offer, that he enjoys coming to the rink each day and recommends the league to any player looking to take their game to the next level.
“The league is a great stepping stone for players,” he added.
Thiessen, 18, wound up committing to the University of Maine Division 1 team after a remarkable year between the pipes, finishing the regular season with a 28-3 record. His strong play continued in the playoffs, posting a 10-4 record, .944 save percentage and a 1.58 GAA, helping Steinbach win the Turnbull Cup. He wound up being named the playoffs’ top goaltender.
“For me, the MJHL is good for development because of the pace of play. There are some very good players that are in this league,” said Thiessen, who is the fourth-ranked North American goaltender in the final NHL Central Scouting rankings for the upcoming NHL Draft. “Everyone that plays in the league wants to advance their hockey careers.”
Thiessen, who was named to the MJHL’s first team all-star squad, says he enjoyed the time he got to spend with his teammates as well as the opportunities the MJHL provided away from the rink.
“It gives you a lot of chances to volunteer in the community,” he added.
Osadick, 17, will be joining Thiessen at Maine University after a breakout first year that saw the young forward pick up 15 goals and 41 points in 54 regular season games with the Stampeders (finished second on the club in playoff scoring).
Whether it’s the Showcase, the year-end awards, and of course, the chase for the MJHL championship, there’s always personal and team goals for players to strive for each season.
“The league pushed me all the time to try and be as successful as I can,” said the 2017 MJHL Prospect Development Camp attendee and rookie all-star team selection.
Osadick, who was also a Canada West team selection camp invitee for the World Junior A Challenge, says he enjoyed the camaraderie and life-long friends he’s made during his time in Swan Valley.
“If you’re looking to pursue your dreams, I’d recommend starting off in junior and then try to work your way up.”
It’s a small sample size as there’s many more on the commitment lists each year but these three young men are proof the MJHL knows what they’re doing when it comes to developing hockey players.