The 2009-10 season had only just ended when Marc Habscheid donned his general managers hat and headed up the Coquihalla on a scouting trip.
There is no off-season in major junior hockey
This year was Habscheid’s first in the dual role of head coach/GM, and by just about any measure it was a success.
Habscheid took over a team that had won just 19 games in 2008-09, and guided them to a franchise record 31 wins this season.
His crew opened a lot of eyes by pushing the mighty Tri-City Americans to six games in their first round playoff series, showing signs that they may be on the cusp of contending for bigger and better things.
There were a number of talented young players already on hand when Habscheid was handed the keys to the car last June. But there were also some issues that needed to be addressed.
“We needed to get younger, and that meant we had some tough decisions to make,” Habscheid noted. “At the beginning of the year, we were tied with another team for having the most 19-year-olds in the league. We wanted to fix that while still having a successful season, and that’s a fine line to walk.”
A lot of players came and went during the season.
Former second round pick Carter Berg was re-assigned one game into the season and later dealt to the Calgary Hitmen for a draft pick.
Fan favourite Scott Ramsay was sent to Swift Current for a late-round draft pick and 19-year-old goaltender Mark Friesen was shipped to the Broncos for a third rounder.
But of all of Habscheid’s transactions, two stood out this season for vastly different reasons.
On Oct. 6, he picked up Colton Grant from the Medicine Hat Tigers for a sixth round pick. On the surface, it was a curious move, trading for a 20-year-old forward with virtually no offensive ability. The veteran forward had just 28 goals in 211 games with the Tigers.
“That was one of the quietest moves,” Habscheid acknowledged. “Colton didn’t have great stats and people might have been wondering what that was all about. But we did our research on him and realized he could really help our culture.”
Culture is a word that popped up constantly in Habscheid interviews, right alongside ‘process’ in terms of frequency. Grant didn’t become an offensive star in Chilliwack (seven goals in 66 games), but he impacted the team in ways that went well beyond the scoresheet.
“He had won a championship, and he showed guys what it takes in terms of commitment and second effort and dedication,” Habscheid explained. “The guys in the locker room were too young to understand the reference, but he was like E.F. Hutton. He didn’t say an awful lot, but when he did, everyone listened. He made a lot of our players better.”
The same day Habscheid acquired Grant, he swung another deal with the Saskatoon Blades, landing 17-year-old Jamie Crooks in exchange for 19-year-old scrapper Randy McNaught.
Crooks had just 14 games of Western Hockey League experience before joining the Bruins.
But from the out-set, that traded looked like a steal for Chilliwack. The Alberta native ended up scoring 21 goals, and should continue developing into a 30 goal forward.
“Crooksy was a good addition without question,” Habscheid said. “He led the Alberta midget league in scoring last year, and we had to give up one of the league’s toughest guys to get him. That move was about looking to the future, and after Crooksy got in shape, he ended up having a good season for us.”
When he was hired by the Bruins, the question about Habscheid was whether he would be able to separate his coaching and managing personas.
Emotion is a big part of the equation for a successful coach.
Emotion can be a killer for a GM.
To his credit, Habscheid seemed to balance the roles well, never making a move in knee-jerk fashion.
“I had good support around me and we had a plan identified early that we could stick to as we went along,” he observed. “The decisions we made were based on that plan and factual information, not emotion. I tried to be as calculating as possible in that role, and I think it worked well.”
Looking at the potential roster for next year, Habscheid believes a foundation is in place. On defence, the Bruins will return three developing youngsters in Mitch Topping, Tyler Stahl, Zach Habscheid. They’ll likely be re-joined by veterans Brandon Manning and Jeff Einhorn.
If Habscheid chooses to, the Bruins could return their entire top six intact with 19-year-olds Ryan Howse and Roman Horak joined by 18-year-olds Kevin Sundher, Dylen McKinlay, Chris Collins and Crooks. If the Bruins were a popular pick to miss the playoffs before last season, they could be a trendy pick as a darkhorse come September.
“I hope we’re starting to get some respect around the league,” Habscheid said. “Respect is earned, and you’d have to ask other players and coaches what they think of our group. The only way you can earn respect is by doing the right things, and we’d like to think we have.”
Most importantly, Habscheid hopes his team has started to earn some respect within the local market.
Attendance lagged this year, but fans seemed to respond to the team in the playoffs. The team got a standing ovation after a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 3, and another after dropping the series finale last Sunday.
“We really tried to re-connect with the fans in this community,” Habscheid said. “Our guys worked tirelessly inside the community, and they did that because it was the right thing to do. We’re part of this community, and that will continue. On the ice, we wanted to work hard and give an honest effort. Hopefully, there is a re-connect going on with the local fans.”