Stampeders Not Just “a Place to Play”

–Above Image: Left to right Carter Johnson, Tristen Mullin, Tristan Langan–

The Swan Valley Stampeders could almost be considered a victim of their own success. Developing young hockey players and getting them to their next level of hockey is really what the Manitoba Junior Hockey League is all about, and from that standpoint, the Stampeders are a smashing success. But sometimes they develop so quick, they don’t end up sticking around as they get older. Consider this list of players who laced up their skates with the Stamps last year – Tristin Langan, Linden McCorrister, Lasse Petersen, Tristen Mullin, and Carter Johnson. Three of them are now in the Western Hockey League, and two others – Mullin and Johnson – are now proud owners of Division One scholarships after moving to B.C. and Texas. The Stampeders take pride in getting players to that next level, but you can be sure they would have loved to have had Mullin and Johnson get those scholarships while wearing the Stampeder jersey, instead of with their new teams.  All five of those players meant the Stampeders were young when they started, and quickly became key cogs in the Stampeder engine. They were not given anything – they worked hard and earned everything they got. What Stampeders head coach Erik Petersen provided them was what any hockey player desires – an opportunity. “In the case of the three kids that are in major junior now (Langan, McCorrister and Petersen), they were brought in and allowed to play and practice when they were midget-aged players,” said the Stampeder head coach and general manager. “It’s a league recommendation that when you have kids that are two years out of junior age that they play every game. “So we used them and they grew into dominant roles,” added Petersen. “They started at the bottom, but worked their way up.” The other two players were a bit of a different story. “Mullin was a by-product of the (Justin) Valentino deal with Dauphin, and he was only in two games after the trade deadline,” said Petersen. “So we worked with him to not quit hockey at 18. He was a good hockey player and we wanted to give him a chance to be on a top line. And it didn’t take long for him to get into a dominant role. “And Carter Johnson was brought in at the end of the season, and as an 18 year old we had him on our top line right from the start of camp, and he grew from there,” he added. So Swan Valley has a track record of letting young players slot into important spots in their roster, and it’s benefitted both the player and the team. “We gave them an opportunity to take that dominant role, where perhaps other teams are more (inclined) to appeasing their 20 year olds, and keeping too many 20 year olds,” said Petersen. The Stampeders bench boss said he likes to stay in contact with his former players, and he says the feedback he gets from them is a positive for the franchise. “They’re all very respectful and still call me coach – well, except Lasse who still calls me Dad,” quipped Petersen. “It’s nice to know you played a role in their development, be it large or small. “The kids have said they liked Swan River, and that they were allowed to play, and get those roles to become a go-to guy,” he added. “So we provide them the opportunity and let them grow, and not be afraid to let them grow.” All that said, Petersen would of course loved to have kept Mullin and Johnson on this year’s team. They opted to try and earn their scholarship by playing on another team in another league (Powell River, BCHL, and Corpus Christi Ice Rays, NAHL, respectively) and it worked out. Add those two players to the mix in Swan Valley this year and they’re probably a top-four team. The goal, then, is to create an atmosphere, not only on the team but in the league, which keeps top young talent in Manitoba. “League-wide, what I hear from the kids, is there is not enough exposure to Division One schools,” said Petersen. “Those are opinions, and I’m not in total agreement with that. “Some leagues have more exposure, but I still think we have exposure here. “I know this because the Division One schools were contacting me about Carter Johnson and Tristen Mullin while they were here, so it’s not like University of Michigan, Sacred Heart, didn’t know about us. There’s just other places where there is more exposure.” What can be done? Ultimately like everything in life, it comes down to money. “A lot of this is on the teams, to expose their players to scouts,” noted Petersen. “And money’s tight in the MJHL. Everyone can see that. I think we have an average-sized staff, with me as coach and GM, and Landon Kroeker and an assistant eight months a year. Other than that we have a volunteer staff, and I think that’s pretty common in the MJHL. Petersen said he’s not criticizing the league, he’s just pointing out what everyone who’s ever been to a team AGM knows – running a Junior A hockey team takes money. He said the MJHL is talking about moving and improving their MJHL showcase, to attract more scouts and leave a better impression with them. “We need to make (the showcase) a huge event – take the scouts out for supper, have meet and greets, and let them leave here thinking this was a great event and there’s a lot of good hockey players here (in Manitoba),” said Petersen. In the meantime, Swan Valley’s work continues. One of their next jobs – to get Josh Tripp a commitment this year. Judging by his play, that commitment seems inevitable. Next week we’ll hear from some of the players who have moved on through the Stampeder organization, and find out what their thoughts are on their time in the Valley. –Above Image: Lasse Petersen warming up in his butterfly position–

In last week’s part one of this three part series, Swan Valley Stampeders head coach Erik Petersen spoke about what his team and the league do to help develop talent, and what can be done to retain those players who feel they can better attract scholarship opportunities in other leagues. This week, some of those players speak up. They all have positive things to say about the Valley and the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. So perceived or otherwise, perhaps the goal for all parties involved is to make the MJHL a destination for players looking for a scholarship, and not a pit stop on the way to a parallel league. Carter Johnson joined the Stampeders in 2013 at the end of the season, before playing two years with the Horsemen. In those two years, he put up 36 goals and 48 assists.  In this, his last year of junior hockey, the former Interlake Lighting player is skating with the Corpus Christi Ice Rays of the NAHL, where at the time of this being written, had 13 goals and 17 assists in 41 games. Johnson also recently committed to Miami-Ohio University out of Oxford, Ohio. It would have been nice if he had been a Stampeder when this scholarship was announced, but one cannot underestimate the value of his time spent in the Swan Valley. Carter, a native of Gimli, sure doesn’t. “I felt I was able to develop (in Swan River) by getting the opportunity to play in all types of situations,” said Carter. “It’s also a very close and friendly organization so I felt very comfortable going in.  “Erik was a really good coach to have, really knows his stuff and was very supportive,” he added. “He gave me every opportunity during my time in Swan which I really appreciate and feel that was huge in my development.” Tristen Mullin came to the Swan Valley Stampeders in a deal with the Dauphin Kings, one which ended up having a huge impact on his future plans.  The Cartwright product scored 24 goals and added 28 assists in his one year with the Stampeders – a huge jump from his two goals and nine assists the year before. Mullin, 19, is now with Powell River of the BCHL, where he scores at a point-a-game pace. And that has earned him a division one scholarship for 2017 with the Cornell Big Red, based out of Ithaca, New York. Mullin not only credits Swan Valley for helping him develop, but also for reigniting his passion for hockey. “Being given the chance to play for the Swan Valley Stampeders is something that I will always be grateful for,” said Mullin. “When I first arrived in Swan the first thing I noticed was how welcoming the community, coaching staff and players are. It is a small town that really rallies around the team and makes you feel right at home.  “Having just come off a rough rookie season on another team, where I lost my passion for the game and my confidence, I will always be thankful to the coaching staff for believing in me and giving me the chance to prove myself.” Petersen’s motto or mantra, if you will, to put players deserving of ice time into key positions, regardless of their age, continues to pay off. And Mullin is a great example of that. “Their time, effort, and patience are a big reason of why I was able to attain my goals of a division one scholarship,” said Mullin. “And away from the rink, I found the team to be one of the tightest groups I have ever played on. I made a ton of lifelong friends that I still keep in touch with, and have a lot of great memories from my time in Swan.”  “The coaching staff and players really made coming to the rink everyday something to be excited about. I am thankful that I was able to be a part of the Stampeders organization and owe a lot to them for being able to achieve my dreams as a hockey player.” Last year’s Stampeders also sent three players to the WHL. Tristin Langan, who started this year with his hometown junior team, is now with the Moose Jaw Warriors. Likewise, Linden McCorrister made the jump from the Stamps to the Brandon Wheat Kings. Both are 17 years old and finding their way in major junior. There’s one other former Stampeder from last year’s team now in the WHL. Lasse Petersen, son of Stampeders coach Erik Petersen, made the transition from the Stamps to the Calgary Hitmen in the fall. He was later picked up by the Spokane Chiefs, where he sports a team-best goals against average and save percentage. He was also part of Team Denmark in the recently completed World Junior Hockey Championships. Petersen’s father might have been running the Stamps, but the talented netminder earned his spot on the team. An injury in goal led to Petersen being called up as a 16 year old, and he followed that with a solid season in a back-up role as a 17 year old. He capped the year with a lights-out performance with Team Denmark at the World Under-18 Championships, where he sported a GAA of 1.33 and a save percentage of .945. That resume paved his way into the WHL. Here then is another young player, getting valuable minutes and practice time as a 16 year old, who took the opportunity provided to him and ran with it.  “The Stampeders organization is great for players who want to move on to a higher level because they have a great coaching staff who helps you achieve your goals,” said the younger Petersen. “With regular practice, playing time, and commitment from both you and the staff it is a great recipe to have a lot of success. They want you to succeed at least as much as you want to yourself.  “The Stampeders organization also helped lots with providing help at school with things such as a tutor when needed,” he added. “Not only did the organization help me grow as a player but also a person.” A lot of focus, obviously, is put on the sport itself. But playing junior hockey in small town Canada can be an eye-opening and rewarding experience. Talk to any successful player from any junior A team, and they’ll tell you the off-ice atmosphere is almost as important as the on-ice factors. “Some of the best memories in general were playing with some of my friends I first made when I moved to Swan River,” said Petersen. “I especially enjoyed hanging out with them outside of school and hockey at team events such as chapel or when you would meet them at the gym after practice.  “Also my first year as a stamp was something really special since it was my first time experiencing how junior hockey works in Canada,” added Petersen, who grew up in Denmark. “Right from the beginning of my junior career I was told by a graduating player to enjoy it as much as possible because it doesn’t last forever, therefore I will always cherish the time I spent with my teammates whether they were good or bad. “I would definitely recommend the experience to other hockey players out there,” he added. Tristin Langan was in the middle of his second season with the Stampeders when he made the jump to the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors. The hometown product says competing against older players helped him reach his goal. “Playing in Swan against a lot of older, faster, bigger guys really helped me to play quick, make fast plays, and keep my head up,” he said. “I would recommend playing in Swan River – it’s a great team with supportive fans.” He added the coaching staff with the Stampeders are knowledgeable and are great instructors. Linden McCorrister also made the jump to the WHL from the Stampeders. He also believes playing against older players helped his development. “I thought playing in Swan prepared me physically for the WHL,” he said. “It’s a good place to start. Luckily I had a buddy my age on the team, which also made it easier.” Having covered junior hockey for more than 20 years, I’ve spoken to many players about their time in the MJHL, and the answer is almost unanimously positive. Their main concern, it seems, is the perceived lack of exposure the MJHL received compared to other leagues in North America. The MJHL has been making strides in this area. Next week, we’ll talk with MJHL Commissioner Kim Davis on what some of those efforts have been, and what they have planned for the future. –Above Image: Linden McCorrister making a play off the half wall–

For the past two weeks we’ve talked to the Swan Valley Stampeders head coach and general manager Erik Petersen on the efforts done by his team to develop hockey players for the next level, while also looking into why some players feel they have to move on to get that NCAA scholarship. We also spoke to former players who have gone on to fulfill their dream of moving up to major junior hockey, or landing that NCAA scholarship – while playing somewhere else. This week we talk to MJHL Commissioner Kim Davis about some of the past initiatives the league has undertaken to highlight their players, as well as take a glimpse into the future about some potential plans. Davis, who has guided the MJHL for more than 14 years, said the biggest event they continue to do each year is the MJHL Showcase weekend, which puts every MJHL team and scouts from across North America in one building – the MTS Iceplex. “We want to make it easy for scouts to see all our players in one weekend,” said Davis. “And we are presently looking at changing the date to later in the year. “Perhaps somewhere in the December time period.” Davis said the league also collects a profile of every player and forwards that onto NCAA schools. “That would be some education information, personal statistics, that sort of information,” he said.  Aside from that, the league strives to ice 11 competitive teams every year. The math is simple – the more talent in the league, the more scouts it will attract. “It’s not something overt, and almost taken for granted, but if you don’t have a good league the scouts won’t come, that’s for sure,” said Davis. “Having a strong, competitive league is important, and that’s something we’re always striving for.” Davis said the league, and the teams in it, are also starting to become more proactive in terms of luring and retaining players to Manitoba. “We meet with players before they come into the league, so they have a better understanding of what the opportunities are in our league,” he said. “Especially as it relates to NCAA opportunities.” “We feel if we do that, the player will have a better understanding of what they need to do to, along with their team, and that will translate into more interest from the NCAA,” he added. “It’s enhancing the knowledge of players regarding the NCAA, and allows them to take advantage of those opportunities.” Still, the perception may linger that a player will have a better chance to earn a scholarship elsewhere. As Petersen put it, schools knew about two of his players before they left to join another league and get their scholarship, so scouts already know about the talent in the MJHL. That has people in the league thinking of new strategies to take, such as emulating the BCHL, a very successful league in terms of scholarships. They ask players to kick in some money to help attract more scouts. Of course, money isn’t everything. “We are going to be having some discussions on stuff like that, but no decisions have been made yet,” said Davis. “The BCHL does stuff like that, but I don’t think other leagues do so. “The leagues in Ontario are very close to a lot of universities, so they do have a lot easier job of enticing schools to visit them, because it’s not a hard trip,” added Davis. “But we are looking at something like (creating a fund for scouts), and I wouldn’t be surprised if we move ahead.” At the end of the day, the MJHL has produced a lot of talented players in the last 15 years who have earned NCAA scholarships, CIS scholarships, or moved up to the WHL and professional hockey. Talent finds a way, and the MJHL has loads of that. “It’s been very competitive for a while now, and we see no reason that won’t continue on in the future,” said Davis. “The quality of hockey across the league, North America, the world is better. The players are all bigger and faster, and that filters down through our league to the minor hockey level. “That could be because of the improved and different training methods, and the whole focus on year-round training, and off-ice training,” he added. “And that is certainly reflected on at the junior A level.”    By the Numbers The number of MJHL players who earned a scholarship at a post-secondary school 2014-15 – 38 2013-14 – 43 2012-13 – 46 2011-12 – 30 2010-11 – 46  Source: MJHL website