By: Mike Stackhouse
Anyone who knows me knows my love of junior hockey and, in particular, Junior ‘A’ hockey. I’ve been involved in a number of capacities with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League since I moved to Yorkton in 2001. I have seen and met a lot of players, coaches, volunteers, fans, media, and various other figures during this time. Some people have hobbies and mind is Junior ‘A’ hockey.
I often say I have 12 favorite teams and I’m happy no matter who wins the trophy. People laugh, but it’s true. For me, the hard part of watching SJHL competition is feeling for the group that loses at the end of each playoff series.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of being intimately involved with the SJHL is getting to know, on a personal level, the head coaches. As my role shifted more away from doing the day to day league communications over recent years, I don’t have the same bond as I used to with these people; but Darcy Haugan was someone I could waste 45 minutes with on a telephone call at any time. Darcy was someone I admired greatly because in a day and age where people use math formulas to determine their strategy and planning as far as constructing a hockey team, Darcy believed in utilizing personalities and treating players like people instead of robots or numbers on a computer screen.
Not many people understand the difficulty of bringing in players to establish a culture of a hockey program that everyone can be proud of. This is where Darcy’s greatest mark will be left on this organization. He inherited what I call ‘a bad mix’ in 2015-16 in that he needed to turn over the roster, almost entirely, and then he also had to take several others under his wing and guide them so they could realize their on-ice and off-ice potential.
During one of those ‘45 minute’ phone calls, I recall Darcy raving about the acquisition of Conner Lukan in the offseason and telling me what a major impact he’d have on their dressing room. He was looking forward to seeing his on-ice production, but he was more interested in telling me what he’d mean to overall make-up within their group of players and the influence he’d have on them as people. That is, perhaps, the one conversation I remember the most as I take a few moments to reflect. I’m going to veer off a bit here, but a couple of other coaches expressed jealousy to me upon learning of Humboldt trading for Lukan. The consensus was uniform. He’s a good player, but a better person and has the ability to have a major impact within his peer group in a positive way.
A couple of months into this year, Darcy had achieved this goal of assembling a very good team with even greater potential because of their character, personalities, and love of each other. I remember telling Darcy that I subscribe to a theory of ‘give me a group of 20 good players who are good people and buy in to a common goal and I’ll pick them almost 10/10 against a more talented team where agendas are going several different ways’. Darcy agreed and said that’s, pretty much, what he had with his current team. He was so proud of them, even at this early juncture of the year.
I stopped in to Humboldt to visit with him prior to a game in October and he was beaming. He told me about the potential that was about to be realized in young goaltender Jacob Wassermann. He was also just about to make a deal for defenseman Bryce Fiske to solidify a defense that he said needed one more veteran to help form a cohesive unit. At this point, Lukan only had 1 goal in 12 games. Darcy was sympathetic. He could see the effort and he could see that Conner was frustrated but he also told me that Conner would figure it out. He wasn’t concerned. For what it’s worth, Lukan would go on to score 17 goals and 45 points in the next 44 games. Darcy knew what he was talking about.
Darcy also talked about being proud of Kaleb Dahlgren and his ‘Diabeauties’ program. It’s not as common today, as it used to be, to see 18, 19, 20 year-old kids so involved with their communities and showing this type of leadership on their own. To focus on a Junior ‘A’ hockey career, and manage your own day to day life with diabetes, it’s a real testament to see someone like Kaleb still find time to make this impact off the ice in what has been his only year in Humboldt. It’s not like he’s been here for 3 years, the kid arrived in an offseason trade and dove right in like he grew up in this community.
While Darcy and I didn’t talk about Logan Schatz, Logan has been a player I have watched close on a personal level for more than five years. He was a top player in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League with Beardy’s and has spent the last four years with the Broncos. Again, another amazing citizen with so much life potential beyond hockey. Logan was someone that I decided to take on as a ‘behind the scenes’ post secondary project as it was well into February and the SJHL’s second best player was without a scholarship. I see this type of thing every now and again but, usually, it’s because the player doesn’t have good marks or has some other intangible that is holding him back. There were no such warning flags with Logan. Here we have, not a good player, but an exceptional player. Captain. Leadership. Good character. Good grades in school. Very likeable. If he wanted to be a broadcaster, he could probably do that too without much effort. This is a no brainer with no risk for a post secondary school that offers hockey. While I tapped into a couple of connections in the NCAA, I also had a lengthy discussion with Blaine Gusdal at Augustana (Alberta) about Logan. It wasn’t two days later that Blaine returned my call to tell me he would be pursuing Logan ‘hard’ and intended to offer him every bit of financial assistance available.
I’ve been around this game long enough to know the Bronco talent, on paper, was closer to being a middle of the pack club more than it was a top three team (which is where they were at the time of Friday’s tragedy). But, this is what happens when you have ‘good kids’. This is what happens when you have ‘good kids’ who bond as a family and are willing to go the extra mile for their teammate and organization. That’s what Darcy assembled here. A very good roster, but not one that should have been able to force a national powerhouse like a Nipawin Hawks team that went over half a season (30 games) without a regulation time loss to a pair of overtime losses (one double OT, one triple OT) and a win through four games of the league semi-final.
Words will never be effective to describe my thoughts on what happened Friday. I’m sad. I’m gutted. I’m numb. There’s nothing I can say to make anyone feel better. My message to the players who are recovering from their physical injuries would be this: use the intangibles your very gifted coach gave you to help bond you as hockey players to help get you through something many of us don’t have the ability to comprehend or would be able to pick up the pieces from. The legacy of your coach and those who didn’t make it will be seen in your intestinal fortitude to carry on. You can all do this. I know it because Darcy told me about all of your abilities as young men. You also have an army of people behind you for support.
I want to make this better. I hate that I can’t.