It's something Mike Stephens never thought he'd do.
One of the greatest volleyball players to come out of the University of Winnipeg now represents the other side. Last week, crosstown rival Manitoba Bisons men's volleyball team named Stephens their new assistant coach.
"If you would've asked me 35 years ago, I would've said it would never happen... I've never worn brown until now," Stephens recently told the Free Press.
"It's different, but it's cool."
It's a huge get for the Herd — Stephens is a legend in the local volleyball community. A product of Maples Collegiate, he broke onto the scene in high school when he made the Canadian junior national team at the age of 17 in 1984. He played four seasons with the Winnipeg Wesmen and helped the program to two national titles. His most successful year came in 1987 when was named the country's player of the year and was MVP at nationals.
"If you would've asked me 35 years ago, I would've said it would never happen... I've never worn brown until now" — Mike Stephens
The championship banners and all the awards are listed on the résumé, but former Wesmen volleyball head coach David Unruh said it's the matches no one saw that really showed how special Stephens was.
It was in December of 1986 when Unruh, who coached the U of W from 1982-89, took the reigning national champions to Cuba to play a tour of matches. The day before the Wesmen were supposed to board the plane, the team was sent a telegram saying they needed to unpack their bags — the tour was cancelled. But Unruh didn't take no for an answer as the team had already paid for the tickets, so they made the trip anyway and managed to arrange a series with the Cuban junior national team — a program that was the second best in the world at the time.
Cuba won the first three matches, but Stephens led the Wesmen to victories in the next three.
"Every time that we started winning, older guys started showing up on the Cuban team," recalled Unruh, who now works in real estate.
The U of W took the Cuban side to a fifth and final set in Game 7, but fell short. "It was probably the best showing that any university team had ever had anywhere that was never seen by anyone. We had taken the No. 2-ranked under-23 team in the world to seven games as they began to stack the team with some older players," Unruh said.
"Their coach told me 'You can take any three players on my team, except my setter, for Michael.' And I was like 'Whoa.' So, that's the kind of effect he had on the floor."
Stephens wasn't a dominant outside hitter because he was a giant; he was one of the best athletes in the country. During his time with the Canadian junior team, players were put through a combine where they had certain skills tested. Stephens put up some numbers that were off the charts.
"I believe the best 20-metre sprint was 2.69 seconds and Mike got something around 2.54. Here's a 6-9 guy going just 20 metres, which is across the volleyball court, at that speed, which is something you wouldn't expect. He broke the 20-metre sprint record for national team athletes," Unruh said.
"Their coach told me 'You can take any three players on my team, except my setter, for Michael.' And I was like 'Whoa.' So, that's the kind of effect he had on the floor." — Former Wesmen volleyball head coach David Unruh
Despite still having another year of eligibility, Stephens played his final match for the U of W in 1988. It was the consolation final against Calgary at nationals and Stephens went out with a bang. The team had lost some important pieces from their national championship runs and had to rely on their big weapon.
"Typically you get anywhere between 120-150 total number of sets in a volleyball match. If my memory serves me correctly, Mike got 135 sets and had 75 kills in that match that went to five (games). That will never be broken," said Unruh.
After his final match, the plan was to take a year off. The Canadian senior men's team came calling, but Stephens didn't budge: he needed a break. There was no such thing as "load management" back then and Stephens' body was paying the price for it.
"You have to understand that being my size, you live in constant discomfort while you're playing. The knees were always sore. When walking up the stairs you have to grab the rail. You can't sit on a couch without soreness and you have to grab the couch arm just to get up. After the year off and you heal and you don't have the pain anymore, I was like 'I don't know if I want to go back,'" said Stephens.
"I was in discomfort since I was 17 years old. I just thought that was life. But when you're older and there's no more pain and you're feeling pretty good, you're thinking 'Maybe I'll hang it up for now and if I want to go back, I'll go back.'"
But Stephens never went back. The Winnipeg Police Service's volleyball team used to scrimmage against the Wesmen and Stephens got to know a few officers very well, leading him to apply to the WPS. He didn't put much thought into it afterward, as few people get hired on their first attempt.
"I applied feeling I wouldn't get hired. My view was. I'm just gonna go play pro in Europe and that's what I was going to do. I had it all planned out, I was going to play pro for 10 years, come back, and maybe re-apply. Well, I got hired in my first shot," Stephens said.
"I'm not sure if it was entitlement or ignorance or whatever you want to call it, but I went in saying 'If this isn't for me, I'll walk away and I'll just go play ball overseas.' You know what, it was just a good fit."
It didn't stop teams from trying to get Stephens out of the courtroom and onto the volleyball court, though. In the mid-90s, the Canadian national team went straight to the chief of police to get Stephens a leave of absence so he could help the country in Olympic qualifying.
"I was approached by my inspector and he said 'Hey, you got a leave of absence,' and he wasn't happy. I said 'I don't know anything about no leave of absence, I didn't ask for it,'" said Stephens.
"I talked to my wife and she said 'I support you, but honestly, if you go and get hurt, maybe you can't come back to your career.' So, I just said 'You know what, the dream is done.' I made peace with it and I have no regrets."
Stephens climbed the ranks over his 27-year career with the WPS, eventually becoming a staff sergeant. He oversaw the major crimes homicide unit at one time and was stationed on the street in the North End for his final three years on the force before retiring four-and-a-half years ago. Even when he was an officer, Stephens, who has two sons, Marcus, 26, and Aaron, 24, with his wife Karen, found time to give back to the sport. He was a board member for Volleyball Manitoba for six years and served as their president for a four-year term that ended in 2016.
As a coach, Stephens led youth club teams for 12 seasons, winning nine consecutive provincial gold medals and a pair of national titles. He was recognized by Volleyball Manitoba in 2011 and 2015 as the Mary Jean England (Elite) Coach of the Year. Stephens also isn't a stranger to coaching at the U Sports level as he was an assistant for the Wesmen from 2015-17. Most recently, Stephens was named Team Manitoba's head coach for the 2022 Canada Summer Games that are scheduled for next year in Niagara, Ont.
"You have to understand that being my size, you live in constant discomfort while you're playing. The knees were always sore. When walking up the stairs you have to grab the rail. You can't sit on a couch without soreness and you have to grab the couch arm just to get up." — Mike Stephens
Stephens' involvement with the provincial program is how he met Bisons men's volleyball head coach Arnd "Lupo" Ludwig, who was named Garth Pischke's successor in the summer of 2020. With Bisons assistant coach Adam Thompson moving on, Ludwig needed some help and thought Stephens would be the perfect fit. Ludwig, the former head coach of Canada's senior women's team (2009-16), Stephens and the Bisons had their first tournament last weekend, playing four exhibition matches at the Brandon Bobcats Invitational. They open the regular season Nov. 4 against the Wesmen at the Duckworth Centre.
"It helps everybody. I'm coming from the women's side so there are a lot of things that he can bring to the team that I'm not aware of yet," said Ludwig.
"He also knows a lot of the teams, a lot of the players, so I think he's a huge, huge help for us. Also, the boys benefit a lot. I saw that already at this tournament, especially the outside hitters. The way they respond to him and listen to him, it's great."
It'll take Stephens some time to get used to the new colours in his wardrobe, but it's well worth it to do something he loves. Talking about what he accomplished on the court is not something he enjoys and he reminded the Free Press about that several times throughout the interview, but the 54-year-old takes great pride in using his experiences to help the next generation of volleyball talent.
"We don't necessarily always do this for the money, we do this because we want to make that difference. That sounds kind of corny, but it just makes me happy," Stephens said.
"I feel content, I feel like I have purpose, and I love to give back. Knowledge is wasted unless you share it."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.