By Bill Burfoot
Photo by Laurie Anderson
The OCN Blizzard are just two seasons removed from a Manitoba Junior Hockey League Final appearance.
However, the team is coming off an emotional rollercoaster of a season, which saw the Blizzard miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010, setting a franchise-high with 40 losses and a franchise-low with just 38 points (18-40-0-2), all while the future of the club hung in the balance.
With rumors swirling all season long about if the team was going to be able to stay operational due to financial difficulties in recent seasons, the news, or lack-there-of no doubt played a major factor of the minimal success found in the 2018-19 season.
Just before the clock struck midnight on the future of the Blizzard, a group of local businessmen stepped in to save the club. The group, including Usman Tahir and Salman Safdar had their purchase of the club approved this past May by the MJHL board of governors, saving the storied franchise from folding.
With stability on the ownership front, the team now had to find stability in the front office, as well as behind the bench. With the announcement that Head Coach and GM Jamie Corbett would not be returning, the Blizzard brought back a familiar face to help steer the club back to its successful past, hiring former Associate Coach Greg Hunter as the club’s new GM. Hunter knows what it takes to be successful in the MJHL, spending over 22 seasons with the Blizzard where he has five MJHL championships, six league championships, and seven division titles to his credit.
Hunter’s first task was to find stability and leadership behind the bench, and he looked no further than Ryan Wood and Chris Perchulak to lead the Blizzard next season as Associate Head Coaches.
Wood brings seven seasons of head coaching experience with him, most recently as Head Coach and GM of the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League. In addition to his coaching resume, Wood also has roots with Peguis First Nations and has shown success in being able to prepare players for the next level, moving 31 players to the NCAA and another 15 to play professional in Europe.
Wood will be joined by Perchulak, a former member of the Blizzard and a well-known name in the area as a coach with The Pas Huskies Minor Hockey program where he’s been since 2005. In that time, Perchaluk compiled multiple provincial championships and was named coach of the year twice.
The club also added Nic Rusak behind the bench as an Assistant Coach.
On the ice, the Blizzard had one of the youngest teams in the MJHL last season, dressing up to 10 rookies in their lineup on many nights. This season the Blizzard will once again be fielding a young squad, but that young squad now has a year of experience under their belts, and are going to be relied on for even bigger roles this season.
What a difference a year makes. There’s a much different feeling in OCN than there was at this time last year. As the new season approaches in just a few short weeks, the stability of new ownership, new leadership, a talented player pool and a fresh start means there could be a Blizzard warning in effect for the MJHL for the 2019-20 season, and that is good for everyone!