The pain of the Fort St. John Huskies bid for a third-straight NWJHL title stings a little less today than it did in March. Though the team will never be able to officially claim the 2019-20 Senators Cup title, it can think of this season as the culmination of a 13-year journey to regain a winning culture.
When the Huskies went from a Junior A program to Junior B in 1997, it took a while for the team to start winning titles, but by the 2000s it had had some success, highlighted by back-to-back titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Following the 2007 playoffs, Gary Alexander took a break from coaching the team after leading the Huskies to a championship in three of his five years at the helm.
Though the team still had talent, the following years saw the Huskies struggle mightily, and all the habits associated with winning slowly disappeared.
"After 2007, the culture slowly started to go in the wrong direction. Guys didn't show up to practice consistently or work hard, and thought of the team as just a place to play a couple years of junior hockey for fun," said Huskies Head Coach Todd Alexander.
Culture is a term tossed around in sports circles, but is often misunderstood. To Todd, it's the process that a team, staff and players all buy into, focused on developments instead of results. It's the willingness to work hard in practice, play for each other, and take the task at hand seriously.
"Culture can really swing, but if you stay on top of it, the culture can bring championships home more than the talent. You need to have that dedication and drive. Talent can take you a long way, but without the correct culture, you can only go so far," said Gary.
The Huskies struggled for the next five seasons after winning the 2007 title. General Manager Jeremy Clothier, who took over during the 2009-10 season, remembers a year where the team had only 10 players all season long.
"There was definitely a different mentality back then, guys just showed up," Clothier said. "It's really hard to build a program with so few players."
Eventually, Clothier and then-president of the Huskies Carolyn Kraus convinced Gary to come back on as head coach for 2012-13, with Todd stepping into a full-time coaching role the following year. Even then, the team didn't turn around overnight.
"We still had a trying time those first couple years getting guys to buy into the system and being willing to adapt to how we wanted to play," Clothier said. "There were guys coming through the Trackers system that didn't want to play with the Huskies, which forced us to recruit more from out of town and extend the rebuild."
But this story has a happy ending.
Year after year, the Alexanders, Clothier, and the team's core continued to improve year after year. They slowly found the right players who were willing to listen and help those around them.
"We needed to go through that grind, but we found that discipline. Guys understood the importance of the little things like keeping the dressing room cleaned without needing to be asked, mopping regularly, taking their shoes off," said Todd.
Fast forward to 2017-18, the Huskies finally got over the hump and won the NWJHL title after two tough playoff exits the seasons prior.
That team, led by captain Jarod Lang and goalie Jonathan Bateman, was made up of players who took the journey along with Todd, Gary, and Clothier. The Huskies went 27-7-2 that year, finishing with 56 points.
While many of the leaders moved on after that season, the 2018-19 team — following a rough opening month as a new leadership core emerged into their roles — finished the season with 49 points and won its second straight title.
However, the 2019-20 team, which locked up first place with more than 10 games left to play and had cruised into the final before the playoffs were cancelled due to the coronavirus, was the best Huskies group yet.
This year's team had a record of 33-5-2, with 66 points. That's 10 more points than they did in 2017-18, albeit with four more games played. They had eight more wins and 16 more points than the second-place North Peace Navigators, the team the Huskies were set to face in the 2020 final.
It's a group that Todd is very fond of, and can proudly say was the result of almost a decade of hard work and persevering through adversity.
"It's great that we're winning now, and players want to win, but for the coaching staff and my father, we're winning by creating better people through this program, and better people make better hockey players," Todd said.
"I think that's the biggest difference with how things are today compared to 10 years ago. We now have 23 guys who want to be here, who are a pleasure to be at the rink with and who don't miss practice unless they have a legit work reason."
The Huskies have had six players advance to play at a collegiate or junior level in the past three seasons. Most recently, goalie Braedyn Funke signed with the University of Oklahoma, and captain Jeridyn Loewen signed with Briercrest College.
The team has become the pride of local players, who look to play for the Junior B club instead of leaving town right away. Todd is proud of the fact that players who grow up playing minor hockey in Fort St. John don't need to leave town to play at a higher level, which used to be a common trend.
"There's a reason Saskatchewan has the most hockey players per capita, because those guys stay in their small towns and grind it out, which gives them a huge advantage. We're developing that here, guys learn how to be mentally tough and go through that grind," Todd explained.
"We're fortunate to have guys like Phil Hiscock, David Alexander, Troy Hunt, Rod Stevens — good character guys that have been pulling the rope here and helping this town develop hockey players."
It wasn't easy for the Huskies program to get to this point, and everyone involved will have to work just as hard to keep the culture in place.
"I'm really happy with what we've installed. At first I had no idea how to accomplish it, but we did a bit here and there, and now have a whole system," said Gary.
No, the Huskies may not be three-time champions, but that hasn't slowed anyone's enthusiasm for the program.
Going forward, the Huskies will have a new group of leaders, and some new players, but it will have that same culture — an organization of players, men, and women who want to get better each year, and be better people leaving the team than they were when they joined.
Email sports reporter Dillon Giancola at firstname.lastname@example.org.