I can remember the announcement of the OCN Blizzard, as a new MJHL franchise, like it was yesterday. I was working at IMTV in Dauphin and drove into Winnipeg, where Boh Kubrakovich and Wayne Hawrysh were there representing the team and the community; while Frank McKinnon beamed as he made the official proclamation the Manitoba Junior Hockey League was adding a team.
Boh gave me a white Blizzard jersey, which I still have to this day and I’m not even a jersey collector. I can recall wondering if this team would survive even three years. I looked at its northern post as a home base and combined that with clear favoritism towards the south (specifically the Winnipeg clubs) and figured it would only be a matter of time before the odds were stacked against them from icing a competitive team.
Was I ever wrong. Leonard Strandberg and Gardiner MacDougall were brought in to be the club’s first General Manager/Head Coach tandem and that was, perhaps, the best decision that franchise ever made over the next 20 years. Leonard, later, brought Kerry Clark to coach once MacDougall moved on to the Canadian college ranks. What ended up happening was a five year reign atop the league with Turnbull Cup after Turnbull Cup. They even went on to a final in the RBC Cup, where they lost to Halifax in the gold medal game of 2002.
What also ended up happening is that the OCN Blizzard made the MJHL a better league. Their elevated play caused teams like the Selkirk Steelers, Portage Terriers, and Dauphin Kings to step up their games in order to dethrone the mighty Blizzard. Not to mention the Neepawa Natives, who were coached by Jeff Pister. I’m convinced Neepawa had a title or two in them had it not been for the Blizzard. In fact, Neepawa’s team of 2001 was, exceptionally, good. If I recall, they were the Blizzard’s toughest foe on their way to a fourth straight MJHL title.
I was in the rink at the old DMCC in 2006 when the Blizzard completed their 3-games-to-1 series comeback against the Kings. I have to admit while Marlin Murray is a personal friend of mine and I’ve always enjoyed working and chatting with Doug Hedley, I found myself, quietly, rooting for the Blizzard, who were led by Drew Schoneck. As an aside, I also remember Drew’s name being a finalist for the Yorkton Terriers coaching job a few years earlier when Don Chesney was awarded the title. Drew would, also, have been a great choice.
I can’t imagine the legendary status some of the alumni have in the community. I know, myself, whenever I see names like Marc-Andre Leclerc, Jordin Tootoo, Konrad McKay, Matt Summers, Jamie Muswagon, Michael Young, Aaron Starr, Justin Williams (heck even when I hear the NHL Justin Williams’ name…I think of the MJHL player), Lem Randall, Mark and Paul Wallmann, and Everett Bear I am instantly taken back to some of the best Junior ‘A’ hockey I’ve ever seen in my life. And, I can’t help but also, occasionally, think of guys like Terence Tootoo, Cliff Duchesne, and Darcy Johnson. Even though I didn’t know them personally, I know their impact on the people of OCN as well as their peers and folks in their hometowns was something beyond what I can write in a story.
Stories that players, coaches, parents, and opposing teams’ fans would tell me from whenever they played at the GLMC would blow my mind. While sometimes local home fans would cross a line, there is no denying the love people had for the Blizzard. Looking back, it’s hard to take issue with the passion. A lot of that is missing from our game today.
However, they say that all good things must come to an end and Wednesday, December 20th it was announced the OCN Blizzard would cease operations at the end of the 2016-17 season. My understanding is that they aren’t dead yet. There’s another meeting January 5th and I hope something will break in the franchise’s favor. But, these are trying economic times for many communities. The discussion about how Junior ‘A’ hockey can continue to thrive when expenses keep going up while revenue isn’t trending in the same direction at the same rate is a topic for another day.
The Blizzard still have life and the aforementioned Doug Hedley is now their coach. Doug’s teams are never bad. In fact, this one is third overall in the league at 22-11-and-3 as I write this and, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them end their tenure the same way it began: with an appearance in an MJHL final. Here’s one fan from outside the Manitoba north who is sitting by, watching, and cheering. Good luck