The Winnipeg Blues have a new vision moving forward.
Yes, the team still wants to compete for the Turnbull Cup — the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s top prize — but since being officially purchased by 50 Below Sports + Entertainment Inc. a couple of months ago, their path to getting there will look different than other teams.
It’s also going to be a lot pricier, too.
To suit up for the Blues this year, it will cost $12,000 for players between the ages of 17 and 18, and $6,000 for 19- and 20-year-olds. Last year, players had to pay roughly $3,000, with some of the cost offset by fundraising. The price has gone way up, as the Blues, who are owned by the same ownership group as the Western Hockey League’s Winnipeg Ice, are now a club whose main intention is to develop players in hopes of getting them ready to play in the WHL. And the Blues might just have the right tools to do that, as the team will be based out of the Rink Training Centre — a new state-of-the-art facility in southwest Winnipeg.
"Obviously being in the Rink training facility, the players will have every resource they need to become better players and hopefully move on the next level," said first-year Blues general manager Taras McEwen in a phone interview.
"That’s the goal for the program — to move players on to the Western Hockey League or any other opportunities they may have. If you haven’t seen the Rink training facility, it’s a world-class facility with the strength and conditioning, the sport science, and skills coaches we’re able to offer our players. Not many teams in the MJHL can do that or teams in Canada. I don’t know another program that has the facility that we have or the resources or staff we have… We’ll probably be a little bit younger than the average age MJHL team, but I think we can still be real competitive in the league while doing that and hopefully move players on to the next level."
It sounds great, if you’re willing and able to spend the big bucks. But it’s not a realistic option for everyone. It’s a reason why the Blues made a blockbuster nine-player trade with the Steinbach Pistons — the team that knocked them out of the playoffs the past two seasons — last week.
The Blues traded forwards Codey Behun (2000), Ty Naaykens (2001), defenceman Dylan Cassie (1999) and a 2020 fourth-round draft pick to Steinbach for forwards Logan Danis (2002), Brayden Clark (2001) and the MJHL list rights to defencemen Austen McIvor (2001), Connor Tyhy (2001) and Tayhem Gislason D (2003), forward Aiden Loschiavo (2002) and a 2020 sixth-round draft pick.
It was the second big trade the Blues made this month, as they also sent forward Sulivan Shortreed (2000) and defenceman Riley Cusack (2000) to the Winkler Flyers for forward Josh Kagan (2000) and a 2020 third-round draft pick.
Steinbach, which had the best attendance in the league with an average of 987 fans per game last season, doesn’t charge players to play on the team. The Blues, who played at Bell MTS Iceplex, had the worst attendance with an average of 207 fans per game.
"If we have players that don’t want to be part of our program, we’re not holding anybody back," McEwen said. "We’re going to move players on. But the players that come in, that’s my first conversation is, kind of what they want. You know, what they want to get out of the game and get out of our program. So my first meetings with parents and players is to go through what our program has to offer and they’re well aware of everything. We want players that want to get better and move on. That’s our focus and that’s our goal when we’re looking for and recruiting players."
Behun, a 19-year-old Winnipeg native, spent the past two seasons with the Blues and had 39 points in 60 games last season.
He said spending that kind of money wasn’t a realistic option for him, but he holds no grudges against his former team.
"The price and all that stuff, for myself personally, it just really wasn’t moving in the right direction for me," said Behun, who added seven points in six playoff games last season. "And obviously six or 12 grand, they want to have more of a development for their players. But I think I’m going to develop really well in Steinbach, and like I said, I want to thank the Blues for everything they did for me the past two years. But I just didn’t really see the side of things with the money, and it wasn’t just me. Obviously, a lot of guys from last year have been traded."
Despite not being a viable option for all players, McEwen said they’re confident in their model and the goal is to become one of the best development programs in the country and win games while doing so.
"It’s something that we have to work through," said McEwen about the cost to players. "We talk to every family and it’s really up to the family if they want to. We want good, young players that want to get better and want to move on. That’s the conversation I have with every family coming in. If they want to get better and move on to the next level and play at a higher level, we’re the program for them."
While trying to figure out which players are able to return to the team, the Blues are also still searching for a head coach.
It was announced in May that Billy Keane, who was the head coach of the Blues the past three seasons, would not be back behind the bench. McEwen said they’re currently interviewing coaches and they’ve also looked at candidates outside of the province. The Blues hope to have their new head coach hired next month.
"For us, we want to make sure it’s the right fit for the position," McEwen said. "With the development and being in our training facility, we want the right coach for that program and to work with our players. We’re going to be patient."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.