It really started to sink in what his hockey team has accomplished this season when Prince George Spruce Kings general manager Mike Hawes sat alone in his office one day last week staring at the fruits of his team’s labour.
There on the table sat the Fred Page Cup, presented annually to the champions of the B.C. Hockey League and beside that trophy was the Doyle Cup, which his Kings won a week ago on home ice when they beat the Brooks Bandits with an unforgettable Game 6 comeback at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.
“I was just me and the two trophies and I just said to myself, ‘who would have thunk it?’” said the 49-year-old Hawes. “All the work and all the effort that’s gone in by so many people to get the organization to where it is, we have earned these two trophies sitting in my office and it’s a good feeling for sure.”
Those two unprecedented cup wins exorcized the playoff demons that haunted the Spruce Kings the previous 22 years of their BCHL existence when they were always one of the teams packing away their gear in March, watching from afar while teams from Penticton, Vernon, Nanaimo, Coquitlam, Chilliwack, Kelowna, Surrey and Wenatchee hoisted the trophies over their heads.
There’s room on Hawes’s shelf for another trophy, the National Junior A Cup, formerly known as the RBC/Royal Bank/Centennial Cup, and the Spruce Kings are among five teams now trying to bring that one home from Brooks, Alta. The Kings, who beat Oakville 5-1 in their tournament-opener Sunday afternoon, play their second game of the tournament tonight (6 p.m., PT) against the Ottawa Junior Senators.
Winning the Doyle Cup at home in their final home game of the season in front of a sellout crowd of 2,112 was the perfect way of saying thank you from the Kings players to their fans who stuck by their team through a 58-game regular season and sent them on their way to remarkable 20-3 run in the playoffs which included a perfect 12-0 streak at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.
The old adage, “you have to learn how to lose before you can win,” certainly applies to Hawes, who finally, in his ninth season as GM, found a way to take the Spruce Kings to the top of the heap.
“It was a lot of years of a lot of work,” said Hawes. “If you go back to what people would call the lean years when we weren’t having as much success as we would like, I used those as learning experiences and figured out what did we do right and what can we change to affect a different outcome with our team.
“In the last few years we’ve been able to put it together and had a few good seasons in a row and it culminated with the roster that we have today that is a pretty special roster to say the least.”
The Spruce Kings’ fortunes started to change in the 2017 playoffs when they fell behind 3-0 in an opening round series to the Wenatchee Wild and came back to nearly tie the series. A last-minute collapse in Game 6 in Wenatchee prevented that when the Wild scored two goals in the final minute, including the series-clincher with six seconds left.
But that playoff memory hung over the returning players that summer and the Kings came back the following season and won their division for the first time, then won three straight playoff series to qualify for their first BCHL final. It ended in a five-game loss to the Wild but the winning habit was well-entrenched when the 2018-19 season began.
After years of NCAA-bound recruits and top prospects bypassing Prince George like it was the Chernobyl of the B.C Hockey League, the Spruce Kings have completely reversed the trend. Their winning ways and progressive tactics preached by coaches Adam Maglio and Alex Evin have made the team and the city a desirable destination. Word has spread throughout the hockey circles in Canada and the United States that this team treats its players like kings and college teams are lining up to try convince Hawes to sign their hottest prospects.
“The building of this roster started about three years ago, when we turned a corner in recruiting and the type of kids we recruited,” said Hawes. “We started to see a change in the culture of what type of players we brought in to the organization and once we started to see the benefits of doing that we started to see better results.”
For the past four years, through Maglio’s ties to Burnaby Winter Club academy director Maco Balkovec, the Kings have landed some of the best players in the league. That talent pipeline from Burnaby brought nine of the 25 players on the current roster to Prince George, including highly-touted centre Fin Williams, who just turned 16 and has been playing with the Kings since his midget prep team’s season ended in mid-March. The tradition started with BWC alumni Ethan de Jong and Kyle Johnson, who used their time as Spruce Kings as a springboard to the NCAA.
“The job they do with their players and their program is right in line with what we like to do and more importantly the young men we like to have in our program seems to coincide with the young men they have in theirs,” said Hawes. “Then you factor the hockey ability and the approach they use to develop their players is in line with how we develop in ours. It seems to be a good match with the amount of players we pull out of their program.”
The Kings’ success on the ice is drawing interest from NCAA schools who have players already committed to college hockey and want them to play a season or two in what is widely considered the top junior A league in Canada. Evin, the Kings assistant coach and director of player personnel, has worked with Hawes and head coach Maglio to establish contacts within the U.S. college ranks and that helped convince American-born players like goalie Logan Neaton, defenceman Jay Keranen and forwards Patrick Cozzi and Dustin Manz – all key ingredients on the team this season - to further their hockey careers in Prince George.
“We get calls now from NCAA teams that like the way we run our program and the way we develop our players, and those are great calls to get,” said Hawes. “It’s taken the program a long time to get there but the fact we’re there now is very rewarding for all of us.”
A winning program is an irresistible drawing card for players intent on attracting college scholarships and the Kings’ record the past two seasons speaks for itself. Players talk with future prospects about how well they are treated, especially during the time the team is on the road staying in quality hotels and eating in good restaurants. The Kings spent a league-high 31 nights in hotels in a 58-game season, compared to some Okanagan-based teams which had just six or eight nights in hotel rooms.
“My thought process since I took over as GM is to find a way to overcome our challenges when it comes to recruiting - geography is the first and the amount of time we spend on the bus,” said Hawes. “We overcame those by running one of the best programs in the league and doing the little things we can control extremely well.
“We become road warriors and there’s so much value in it. We always thought that was a challenge for us in recruiting and now we use that as a benefit. We explain to the players and the parents that being on the bus that long is a good thing and it brings the players together. To have the success we’ve had this year, and anyone who has had a championship team in any sport, they need to be a tight-knit group and we’ve got that this year and a lot of that is because they’ve spent so much time together. They’ve bonded and become real close and they battle for each other because of it.”
Attendance figures in Prince George have been healthy throughout the season and crowds have been close to sellouts throughout the extended playoff run. The willingness of the Kings supporters to buy tickets on the annual show home lottery and the mega 50-50 draws raised enough to cover the team’s operating costs for next season. The Spruce Kings – the only community-owned team to ever win the BCHL championship - are now considered a model franchise.
It wasn’t always that way. Three or four years ago, the Kings organization was drowning in red ink to start the season and it wasn’t until two years ago when the team raised ticket prices for the show home lottery from $100 per ticket to $125 that the tide changed.
“The costs of running a junior team properly were going up every year and we were stagnant in our revenue generation and credit to Rick (team president Turgeon) and the board for what they did on the business side,” said Hawes.
“They were not only able to get us out of debt and get us square with everybody but we’re one of the teams in the league that makes money now and we’re probably the most financially-viable team in the league. I told them I will take care hockey side and you take care of the business side and together we’ll make this thing happen.
“I understand where some teams are at with their financial situation because it wasn’t long ago we were there, but for me it’s a revenue issue. We found a way within our organization to bail ourselves out and I think what’s what these other teams need to do. Their expenses are going up but they just need to work harder to find that revenue.”