By Derek Holtom
It’s been an unprecedented playoff run for the Swan Valley Stampeders, one which has injected new energy into not only the team, but the entire community.
The Stamps have had some outstanding teams in the past, especially those early years, when they’d win 40 or more games and pack the Centennial Arena to the rafters. Unfortunately for them, those were also the years of the OCN Blizzard dynasty, and playoff success was hard to come by.
Later, Swan Valley put together some talented young teams who would claw their way out of the first round of the playoffs, only to be sent packing by juggernaut teams such as the Dauphin Kings or Portage Terriers who ended up playing for the RBC Cup.
But this season Swan Valley overcame a chaotic start, which saw their previous coach resign in the preseason, to put together a season to remember. And under head coach and GM Barry Wolff’s guidance, the Stamps put together enough quality pieces to land them in the MJHL final against the top-seeded Portage Terriers.
With all this happening on the ice, the Stampeder brand has never been hotter – both within the Valley and beyond.
Team President Pat Morden previously served in the same position back in the early 2000’s, and was also involved in the creation of the franchise back in the late 1990’s. They say timing is everything, and Morden laughed it’s a great time to be a part of the Stampeder organization once again.
“I seemed to have picked the right time to come back,” quipped Morden on the eve of the MJHL final.
With the Stamps about the play for the top prize in junior A hockey in Manitoba, Morden says you can see and feel the excitement wherever you go in the Valley – from Birch River to Minitonas to Benito and everywhere in between and beyond.
“It’s phenomenal, the support we’re getting,” he said. “There’s evidence everywhere. All the businesses in town are supporting the team. It takes me back to the early days when we were still a novelty and we were popular for that reason.”
“Now it’s a rebirth this year, and it’s great to see,” he added.
How appropriate the rebirth has occurred during their 20th anniversary season, when so much effort was taken at the start of the year to bring back alumni to the community, and to celebrate what the team has meant to the Valley.
In a series of interviews I did for the Star and Times with some of those alumni, many of them mentioned how they keep up with the team from afar. And Morden notes with the advent of social media, the Stampeder brand is reaching further and burning brighter than ever.
“The difference is now there is so much social media, which wasn’t there in the early days of our franchise,” says Morden. “It’s certainly a big part of keeping the good vibes going. It’s pretty amazing.”
And long playoff runs do tend to lead to an improvement in the bottom line of the team, though Morden notes it’s not all profit in the playoffs.
“I know everyone looks at it and says you must be making money hand over fist, but there are costs associated with playing at this time of year,” he said. “But on balance, I can’t tell you where we’re going to end up, but it’s been a positive for sure.”
“And we’re getting crowds larger than I’ve seen in probably 10 years.”
The keen interest and large crowds flow from not only the improved play on the ice, but the team’s activity in the community. Morden said Wolff, as well as assistant coaches Darren Webster and former Stampeder now assistant coach Ryan Bettesworth do an outstanding job at getting the players out in the community, visiting schools, playing floor hockey, and other activities.
“They’ve been so easy to deal with, and they’ve done so much in the community – I don’t know if they could have done more.”