By Derek Holtom
One could say Willowbrook, SK native Cody Straker was a model of consistency during his three years with the Swan Valley Stampeders.
In his rookie year he had 13 points from the Stamps’ blueline, a feat he would match in season two. And in his final year of junior hockey, Straker would see his totals jump to 23 points.
But he was perhaps better known as one of the toughest Stampeders to ever don the jersey. Straker had more than 200 penalty minutes in each of his three seasons, finishing with 669 all time. That’s not the most all-time – that honour still remains with Justin Wright (an astounding 758 PIMs for the Melfort product), but he did nudge past Chris Mannle who sat in second place with 659 (and who set the team record with 424 PIMs in one season).
The rugged defenceman came into the MJHL just prior to the shift away from fighting. But when he was here between 2007 and 2010, Straker could be counted on to step in and do what was asked of him.
His former coach Dwayne Kirkup knew he had a gamer in Straker, and would put him out on the ice in all manner of situations – even if that meant he’d be spending the next five minutes in the penalty box.
“The game is completely different with the fighting rules, and the way it works now,” says Straker, who was part of the Stampeders’ successful reunion weekend. “You can only fight once now. But back when I was playing, we had the two-fight rule, and that was just a way of protecting our guys.”
“I think that now if there is a CFB (checking from behind), or anything like that – or just to get a spark in general – I think it’s still needed in the game,” he added. “They’re obviously trying to take that out of the game – it’s different, but it’s alright.”
MJHL Commissioner Kim Davis actually spoke on the new fight rules in an interview earlier this year, and he noted while there are still pockets of support for fighting in the MJHL, he says the trend is going away from that. The hockey community, it appears, is not unanimous in their opinion on fighting in junior hockey.
When asked who his toughest opponent was in the MJHL, Straker had to list former Selkirk Steeler and Dauphin King Justin Michaud.
Straker came to the Stampeders after playing his midget AAA in Tisdale. The Stampeders saw several players from north east Saskatchewan join their ranks throughout the years, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the blueliner ended up on the radar of the Stampeders.
“(Former head coach and general manager) Guy Vestby came to watch me play, and I guess he liked what he saw,” said Straker. “He also came and watched me play ball in Winnipeg, and offered me a spot on the team.”
Straker takes away many great memories from his time in the Valley, including his time with billets Blaine and Karen Healy “were the best billets I’ve ever been with”. But says his final year – the 2009-10 campaign, is the one he remembers most fondly.
That would be the year the Stampeders beat the Portage Terriers 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs, only to lose to the Dauphin Kings (who were hosting the RBC Cup that year) 4-1 in the second round. Swan Valley would be the only team to take a win off Dauphin in those MJHL playoffs.
“We didn’t quite make it, but that was the best time, that playoff run,” he said.
Straker parlayed his junior experience into a brief professional career with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League. And his willingness to drop the gloves opened up that opportunity.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “In that league, the SPHL, they wanted that. Hockey is not that big of a thing down in the south. And they wanted entertainment, so lots of guys where down there fighting.”
He added moving further away from home was a real eye opener, as was learning what the professional game of hockey – both on and off the ice – was all about.
“You’re living on your own, you’re not with your billets anymore,” says Straker. “We still had boosters and stuff like that to help us out. But other than that, it was a lot different. You were cooking your own meals, you were doing everything – you were growing up.”
“And you control what you do on the weekends,” he added. “That stuff is all on you. If you want to not be smart about, you can, and you’ll be out of there really quick.”
A player cut from a higher league bumped Straker from the Cottonmouths earlier than he would have cared for, but he still enjoyed the opportunity to lace up his skates for a paycheque.
“I loved it 100 per cent – it was a great time while I was down there, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Fast forward a few years, and when Straker was approached about the Stampeder alumni weekend, said he jumped at the chance– looking at it as a unique opportunity to re-establish those friendships he built playing for the Stamps.
“I was excited, I was the first one to call when Cramer Coulthart said we were having it,” he said. “It’s always nice coming back to this town – I love it here.”
“And I was just excited to get back and see everyone.”
That includes some of the players who followed his footsteps with the team, as Straker says he kept close tabs on the Stampeders following his playing days.
The other big reason Straker keeps an eye on the fortunes of the Stampeders is that he still frequents the Valley three to four times a year. While he was playing with the Stampeders he started dating Jenna Fahrenschon, and 10 years later they’re still together.
He later joked that his team would be the squad to win it the alumni tournament. But as they were celebrating late into the night, no one was thinking about the 1-1 record they put up – they were thinking about the next reunion event.
And when asked if there would be any fights in the alumni game, Straker laughed “I sure hope not!”
Straker now lives in Regina, where he recently took his fire-fighting course. He said he now wants to continue his education in that area, and eventually get into a career in paramedics.