Not that anyone is really counting……BUT…..Since you asked: It has been 41 years since an MJHL team has won the national Junior A championship. With Portage hosting this year’s RBC Cup, talk around town has focused on Manitoba’s long stretch between championships.
Oh, the boys from the MJHL have come close. OCN lost in a final. Likewise Dauphin.
Ken Neufeld is hoping the drought comes to an end this year.
Neufeld has the distinction of being the last MJHL captain to hoist the championship trophy over his head in celebration. Then captain of the Selkirk Steelers, Neufeld proudly held the Centennial Cup, while his teammates celebrated loudly and proudly.
“Portage Terriers have had an incredible season. It would be great for the league and Portage to win the RBC Cup,” said Neufeld. “I would be exciting to share a national championship memory with this year’s Terriers.”
Neufeld echoes what all MJHL fans are hoping ─ to bring home a national championship. Ironically, prior to the Steelers championship run in 1974, the Portage Terriers won the Centennial Cup in 1973. As Neufeld says, “back to back championships, and then a very long time in between”.
Now President and CEO of Tundra Oil & Gas, Neufeld admits to following the MJHL, albeit from a distance. He’s hoping to attend the RBC Cup tournament, paying special attention to the hometown Terriers.
Neufeld and his 1974 Steelers were a gritty band of talented, rugged players. Neufeld believes the Steelers owe much of their success to coach George Dorman, and his unique approach to the game.
“George was a real character in his own right,” said Neufeld. “Hockey wise, we only played with four defenceman all season. That is unheard of these days. George treated us like adults. He really got the best out of his players.
“He taught us to think like champions, even before we were champions.”
Despite all their talents and toughness, the Centennial Cup did not come easily. Steelers took on Smith Falls Beavers in a best-of-seven championship series ─ with all seven games taking place at Smith Falls. Life on the road was not new for the Selkirk boys, who had previously won previous playoff series on the road in Kelowna and Prince Albert.
“We had already spent a lot of time on the road and played tough games in other team’s rinks,” said Neufeld. “I suppose we didn’t dwell on it, playing all the games at Smith Falls. We had confidence that we could win on the road. Crowds were rockin’ and very loud in those rinks (Kelowna/Prince Albert)….we would feed off that energy.
“Smith Falls was a bit different in that it was a suburb of Ottawa. The Beavers certainly had fan support, but it really wasn’t the same (raucous) as Kelowna or Prince Albert.”
With all the final games in Smith Falls, Dorman, who passed away several years ago, pulled out all the motivational tricks. Prior to each game, Dorman would invite a guest to deliver a pre-game motivational speech to the players.
“George’s thinking was that he’d been talking to us all season,” said Neufeld. “I suppose he thought we needed to hear a fresh, new voice. I thought it was a fantastic idea.”
Dorman, who was affectionately nicknamed “Moses”, pushed all the right buttons. Steelers won the Centennial Cup in incredible fashion: in overtime and in Game 7. Hometown product Gord Kaluzniak scored the game winner, with defenceman Neufeld earning an assist on the play.
“I was on the blueline with the puck, and rather than pound it towards the net, I chipped it off the boards low, hoping the puck would re-direct towards the net; I was just looking to do something a bit different.”
Different worked. After Kaluzniak scored, Steelers had to hang on to the lead for about five minutes: this was not a sudden-death format.
“It was really tense in the last few minutes,” remembers Neufeld, who came to the Steelers as a 17-year-old from Steinbach. “I just remember this huge sense of relief and happiness when the buzzer went off.”
Since that day forward, the Steelers have held a very special spot in MJHL history. And in Selkirk. Last year the team was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. Most of the players, many now pushing into their 60s, turned out for the ceremony. Kelly Kehoe. The Kaluzniak brothers. Rick Klassen. Andy Stoesz. Randy Reimer. Bill Whitehead. Howie Parkes, Tommy Wark, Mike Chubey, Murray Thompson, Rick Dorman. Owen Wilkinson. Marlin Vanrobaeys. Gerry Dudar. Even Steelers’ stick boy, now businessman Glenn Buffie was on hand.
Portage Terriers, circa 2015, hope to join the MJHL’s exclusive club of championships. And Ken Neufeld will be cheering for them.