The construction of a hockey team worthy of winning Canada’s National Junior A Championship doesn’t come with a manual. There is no outline, assembly
instructions or schematic searchable on Google.
Certainly there are steps that need to be followed, but the individuals or small groups that build championship contenders usually do so with a
do-it-yourself method not unlike those that eagerly tackle home renovation projects.
Where it can become effectively difficult is after the plan is created and the process begins in earnest. Having the patience and trust to execute your
strategy and avoid second guessing your methods is probably the most important step in the undertaking.
“We knew what our process was,” said Blake Spiller, head coach and general manager of the Portage Terriers, the host team for the 2015 RBC Cup. “Whether it
was right or wrong we stayed with how we wanted to do it. You have to do your homework. And if there was a question we always went back to the structure
that was set out.”
Since being awarded the rights to host the RBC Cup nearly two years ago, Spiller and his group set out to build a team capable of being a true contender.
As hosts there is a responsibility to ensure your team is competitive even though when this season began for the 129 teams in 10 leagues across the
country, Portage was the only one with a guaranteed spot in the tournament.
As a result, the Terriers were well equipped to venture on a critical path when the season started. In the end, they blew past everyone in the Manitoba
Junior Hockey League with a record-setting 53-3-4 regular season and a perfect 12-0 run in the playoffs en route to their fifth league title in eight
Spiller admits his team’s success this season actually started a couple of years ago with a solid foundation and an eye to this year’s RBC Cup. Of the
players on his MJHL championship roster this season, 13 have played at least two years with the organization. This includes fourth-year forward and Portage
native Zack Waldvogel, who led the team – and league – in scoring with 78 points in 60 games.
It is this type of strength in numbers before the puck even dropped this winter that allowed the Terriers to formulate a plan on areas to improve, holes to
fill and augments to make. From there, roster improvements were easily identified and remedied.
“Our thought was we didn’t want to bring in 12 guys this year,” said Spiller. “I think we wanted to start to whittle down last year as the season went on
and this year we wanted to add certain pieces that we thought would give us a chance to win.”
The familiarity with over a dozen returnees provided the Terriers with a foundation to build upon with a championship crescendo. That in turn afforded
Spiller and his staff a chance to figure out which moves to make and the impact those transactions would have in improving their team.
In addition to a core group, the Terriers wanted to make sure that their team composition moving forward consisted of skill, character and experience.
Those three ingredients topped the criteria list for the players they acquired to compliment the returning group as this season began.
“We liked our core group of guys last year coming into this season,” said Spiller. “We were looking to add some top-end guys. That’s how it worked out for
One of the key additions for Portage as the curtain was about to lift on the MJHL regular season last fall was acquiring Brandon, Man., native Tanner Jago.
The 20-year-old spent the previous season playing junior in the United States after two years with the Winkler Flyers, where he was the MJHL rookie of the
year in 2011-12.
In Jago, the Terriers returned a player to his home province, secured an elite defenceman and added valuable junior hockey experience.
“Tanner was a huge piece,” said Spiller. “We really went hard after him. It took some time. But once we got him we felt things started to fall into place.”
After committing to the Terriers prior to the season starting, Jago was named the team’s captain and finished with career highs in goals (17), assists (36)
and points (53).
Moreover, after deciding to join Portage for his final junior season, his commitment and presence allowed other dominos to fall for Spiller and company to
recruit other Junior A veterans with Manitoba roots like Garick Gray and Landon Peel.
“Players talk,” said Marlin Murray, the head coach and GM of the Dauphin Kings, who hosted the 2010 RBC Cup and reached the final before losing to the
Vernon Vipers. “Once you get one or two of those players to commit, the others almost recruit themselves. It gives you credibility and gets the attention
of other players for a place to play.”
As this season moved forward that sentiment obviously rippled through junior hockey circles in both the MJHL and Western Hockey League.
The Terriers were then busy making other moves to improve. This included deals within their own league up to the Jan. 10 trade deadline and securing others
from major junior.
“We brought in guys we knew,” admits Spiller. “We weren’t taking flyers on guys.”
Although the number of 20-year-old players varies from league to league across Canada, the MJHL allows teams to play with nine per game. Ensuring you
maximize your full compliment of 20-year-olds is an important factor in building an RBC Cup contender.
“You need to have the strength of an older group as much as you can and guys that have some experience,” said Spiller, whose Terriers have made three
previous RBC Cup appearances in the last 11 years (2005, 2011 and 2012).
But as cyclical as junior hockey is by nature, the Portage bench boss also maintains building a national contender shouldn’t come at the expense of
mortgaging the future of your organization. He says a balance to today and tomorrow is imperative.
“We did a good job of building our team but not selling the future.”
And finally, the last ingredient to assembling a successful team to host the RBC Cup is perhaps the practical experience of the architect himself.
Now in his ninth season in the dual role of coach/GM – and many years previously with the Terriers as an assistant, Spiller concedes he and his lieutenants
might not have been prepared for this process earlier in their careers.
“I don’t think we would’ve wanted to do this 10 years ago when I wasn’t around long enough,” he said. “We knew how we wanted to do this. There isn’t a
manual. Just because you think you put together a good team the stars still need to align for you to have a chance.”
But one of his provincial adversaries believes he’s done a fine job of building a contender.
“Blake should get a lot of credit for the team he’s put together,” said Murray. “I would see them as one of the favourites as the host team. It’s going to
be tough for teams to come in there and beat them at home.”