Illegal Curve will be posting a preview of the various junior hockey leagues across North America in the coming weeks. We will kick it off with the MJHL and an interview with Craig Stein of GX94 Radio in Yorkton, SK.
Illegal Curve– Craig, you have been around the MJHL for some time now, give us a quick run down of how the season is going to shape up. Who is expected to contend, who will be also rans?
Craig Stein– Well being based in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, broadcasting games for Swan Valley and Waywayseecappo, I don’t see a lot of the Addison Division teams, with the 5 clubs all in Eastern Manitoba, but judging from what I did see last year and on paper, it’s hard to ignore the Selkirk Steelers. Head Coach Keith Cassidy has built a monster of a program since becoming the head guy. They went to the RBC in Prince George two years ago, and finished first overall in the regular season last year but were bounced in the first round by Winkler, so they’ll be hungry this season. Their top guns from a year ago were 1988’s, and are returning. Adam Pleskach (52-56-108), Russ Payne (43-53-96), Blair Hawes (21-47-68) and Josh Schappert (10-16-26 in just 15 GP) should lead maybe the most dangerous group of forwards in the league.
The Sherwood looks strong from top to bottom. The Swan Valley Stampeders were pegged by most to take a run at it this year. Some of those opinions have cooled a little since last season’s Rookie of the Year Stephan Vigier (37-49-86) went to Sioux City of the USHL, but I still like the Stamps heading into the year, they only graduated four 20-year-olds from last year, and the bulk of their team are 1989 born players, led by former WHL goalie Chris Ward and projected first line center Myles Stephens (26-47-73), so they should be fun to watch for the next 2 seasons. Dauphin’s hosting the RBC next year, so it’ll be intersting to see how they go about this season. They’ve got a great shot at making noise again with Luke Stokotelny (37-44-81) up front, and 5 defensemen and their starting goalie from last year, Adrian Rubeniuk all back. But if things aren’t going as planned come deadline day, I would think it’d be tempting to start looking at next year’s team and building a great host team, if the right deals are there. That said, they won’t roll over, it’s a winning organization over there, it’s been a while since their last championship, but in the 5 years I’ve worked in or around the MJHL they’ve never had a bad team. Portage lost a lot from last year’s Championship team but they were so deep I think they’ll be right in the thick of things again. Wayway’s program’s turned a 180 in the last 3 years. They’re another deep club who lost a lot and it’ll be a matter of seeing who steps up. OCN and Neepawa were the bottom feeders last year, but OCN didn’t graduate a single player and Neepawa’s been cashing in on some of those “future consideration” deals over the summer, especially on defense, acquiring Zach Tully from the Winnipeg South Blues and Thomas Frasz from Dauphin. They also made the biggest move of the summer acquiring Eli Halcrow from Beausejour, he led the Blades with 28 goals and 50 points, and that’s a team that had just 7 wins all year. This is the toughest pre season pick I’ve had to make in this league, the Sherwood looks so tight heading in, we’ll have to see how it plays out, but I really like Selkirk in the Addison again this year.
IC – In terms of players currently in the league, are any generating a buzz? Any kids who could make their way to the NCAA?
CS–I’d put money on guys like Luke Stokotelny in Dauphin, Russ Payne in Selkirk, Jason Bowles in Wayway, Zeanan Buternowski in OCN’s a real speedster who’s only 19 this year. Eric Delong in Portage, I’d heard rumours he was close to a Div I for THIS year, so I’ve gotta think he’s a shoe-in for next year. Those are all very skilled, fast forwards who I think would fit into the college style of game. There are more, for sure, but those are a few that stand out.
IC– I am unfamiliar with the MJHL game. How would you describe the style of play?
CS– Well it’s funny, half the games I do are in the MJHL, half are in the SJHL, and Saskatchewan’s had bragging rights, going 28-10 in Anavet Cups, which is when the champs of each league play a best of seven to decide who goes to the RBC to represt the West. But Manitoba’s closing the gap I think, they’d won 3 of the last 6 Anavets before Humboldt came along and cruised through last year’s eventually winning the National Title. I’ve talked about it with a few Manitoba coaches, and the consensus seems to be that the MJ’s just a younger league. You almost never see 16 and 17 year olds in the SJ, while Manitoba tends to take a longer look at guys that age. But the MJHL’s still a good league, and it’s very wide-open. Some of the most exciting games I called last season were MJ games. Fourth place Swan Valley took the eventual champion Portage Terriers to seven games and it was easiley the best playoff series I did all year, probably ever. I’ll never forget it.
IC– In recent years, the BCHL and now the AJHL have become breeding grounds for NHL talent while the MJHL seems to produce few NHL players. Do you think the MJHL will eventually catch up?
CS– Well they got off to a good start when the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted Sean Collins of the Wayway Wolverines in the 7th round this past June. He’s going to Cornell this fall but I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s playing pro at a high level before his 4-year scholarship’s up. The biggest thing against the MJHL is geography. Aside from Winnipeg, it’s very small markets. A lot of teams are in cities with populations of 5000 or less. Scouts are more likely to be in and around Calgary or Vancouver than they are Neepawa or Beausejour. The league has a lot of talent, but it’s fair to say they don’t get the same exposure B.C. and Alberta do. I don’t think Manitoba will ever catch up to those two, but that Collins draft pick was the best thing that could happen to the league going forward.
IC– A number of kids from the MJHL have been heading south to suit up in the USHL. Do you see this as a continuing trend? Are you aware of USHL scouts actively pursuing MJHL kids?
CS– Probably the biggest and most recent name to do that was Stephan Vigier, who I mentioned earlier. Again, it comes down to the exposure thing, if players feel there’s a better chance of being seen in the USHL, they’ll go. In Vigier’s case, I think he felt going to the USHL would better prepare him for the NCAA, because he’d already been talking to schools, and very shortly after signing with Sioux City, before playing a single game with the Musketeers, he committed to Northern Michigan for 2010-11. I wouldn’t doubt the trend will continue, but with USHL teams only allowed 2 non-American players, and the fact they draw from literally all over the world, obviously there’s only so much room for Canadian Junior ‘A’ players on those rosters.
Illegal Curve wishes to extend its thanks to Craig Stein for taking the time to answer our questions. Craig blogs over at craigstein.blogspot.com. Check it out if you have time. We will follow up with the SJHL and USHL in the next couple of weeks. If you or someone you know is an expert on another junior league in North America or Europe, email me at email@example.com. We would be very interested to hear from you.