STEINBACH — It was the summer of 2012 and Paul Dyck had a dilemma.

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STEINBACH — It was the summer of 2012 and Paul Dyck had a dilemma.

The newly installed head coach and general manager of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League's Steinbach Pistons had inherited an underachiever and whatever direction the team was heading, the signs were not encouraging.

The Pistons had finished 11th twice and 10th once in the three seasons since being relocated to this bustling city of 15,000 in the heart of southern Manitoba's Bible belt.

Playoffs were a pipe dream.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Steinbach Piston #7 Mark Taraschuk waits for the puck to drop against the Portage Terriers Wednesday. </p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Steinbach Piston #7 Mark Taraschuk waits for the puck to drop against the Portage Terriers Wednesday.

Reversing the fortunes of a perennial loser can be one of the toughest jobs in hockey, but Dyck believed he was up to the task. It would require strong leadership and the investment of time and money to turn it around.

"We weren’t good enough," recalls Dyck, the 46-year-old son of a retired local funeral director. "There was a reason we were at the bottom of the standings every year and we needed to make some changes. We needed to improve our depth. Slowly we started to make changes in both of these areas.

"Our culture started to change and it became a place guys wanted to play. We felt the community would support it but we also needed to put a few more wins on the board."

The arrival of a community-based ownership group (led by president Grant Lazaruk) was crucial to the overhaul, giving Dyck the go-ahead to renovate to the club's offices and dressing room facilties at the aging and cramped T.G. Smith Centre.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Steinbach Piston head coach Paul Dyck</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Steinbach Piston head coach Paul Dyck

"We wanted to create an environment where the guys were proud to be in and they wanted to spend time," says Dyck, who guided the franchise to its first Turnbull Trophy title in 2012-13 and five consecutive playoff appearances. "Although it was a sizeable investment, it was worth every penny."

Five years later, the Pistons have become a model franchise. They lead the MJHL in attendance (averaging just under 1,000 per game) and, entering Friday's action, were No. 5 in Canadian Junior Hockey League rankings and in top spot in the 11-team MJHL with a 16-4-1 record.

"One thing that was lacking was the first few years was the community hadn’t taking ownership of this team," says Dyck. "We had 350, 400 people in the stands but they came largely with no emotion attached to our team. Now, you come to come to our games and our fans are invested in the team."

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Pistons pipeline

Steinbach players who have advanced to college hockey or the Western Hockey League since 2012:

 

NCAA Division I

Justin Baudry (Bemidji State); Roman Bengert (Lake Superior State); Nick Deery (Minnesota-Duluth), Cole Smith (UND); Tyler Penner (Colgate); Darby Gula (Bemidji State); Tyler Anderson (St. Cloud State).

NCAA Division III

David Robertson (Norwich); Cory Koop (Wisconsin-Stout); Jordan Bochinski (Liberty); Kerry McGlynn (Hamline); Garret Schmitz (Hamline); Garrett Geane (Wentworth); Ryan Carlson (Wisconsin-Superior); Connor Martin (Marian); Eddie Eades (Concordia); Cody Longie (Northland); Aaron Ryback (Concordia); Damien Kulynych (SUNY-Fredonia); David Macgregor (UMass-Boston); Andrew Rupert (Aurora).

U Sport

Quinton Lisoway (Manitoba); Landon Cross (Regina); Justin Augert (Manitoba); Tyler Anton (Lakehead); Matt Franczcyk (Wilfred Laurier); Kyle Rous (Manitoba); Jonah Wasylak (Manitoba); Johney Cormier (Ottawa); Joe Leonidas (Lakehead).

Western Hockey League

James Shearer (Brandon); Colton Veloso (Portland); Quinton Lisoway (Brandon); Stephen Hak (Red Deer/Regina); Denis Bosc (Swift Current); Mario Petit (Everett).

The organization has expanded its scouting operation while also paying more attention to keeping players properly prepared to play, both with a dedication to off-ice training as well remaining active away from the rink.

If they're not in school, players are required to volunteer in the community. Starting next week, for instance, forward Drew Worrad will be doing regular volunteer work at the Steinbach Christian School in grades 1-4. The community outreach is good for the team and Dyck believes the work is good for his players, too.

"Obviously we’re here to win hockey games," says Dyck. "That being said, we’ve put an emphasis on personal development as well. I think we’re always trying to find that happy medium, where they’re fresh and their minds are fresh when they hit the ice for games. We also have time to give back to our community."

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The Pistons could be North America's team with a roster consisting of 11 Manitobans, four Minnesotans, four Ontarians and one skater each from North Dakota, Missouri, B.C. and Quebec.

 Steinbach Piston coach Paul Dyck yells at the referee after a double minor call against the Pistons during a game against the Portage Terriers Wednesday.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Steinbach Piston coach Paul Dyck yells at the referee after a double minor call against the Pistons during a game against the Portage Terriers Wednesday.

This is not accidental; Dyck casts a wide net when he does his recruiting.

A case in point is Worrad, the 20-year-old from Oakville, Ont., who plays on the club's top line with Will Koop and current MJHL scoring leader Bradley Schoonbaert. Worrad earned scholarship offers from NCAA Division 1 Clarkson and, most recently, Niagara University. But when Niagara's coaching staff was fired last year, his scholarship evaporated, too.

Unwilling to stay at home in Ontario where players must pay to play, Worrad considered quiting the game before he got a call from Dyck in the off-season. Now, he's still chasing his dream of playing Division 1 hockey.

"It’s cool being the... big team on campus," says Worrad. "In Oakville, you’re surrounded by three or four OHL teams, you’ve got the Toronto Maple Leafs 20 minutes down the road. In London, you have the Knights and the Western Ontario Mustangs. It’s been cool coming here being the team to watch, and the way the organization is structured here is so professional. They make sure that they go out in the community. They’re very proactive so everyone on the team is keeping busy."

Winnipegger Mark Taraschuk also found a hockey home. After two seasons of clawing to get into the lineup during stops with Brandon and Swift Current of the Western Hockey League, the 20-year-old defenceman has become one of Dyck's go-to players.

"It’s a community where everyone knows who you are and who the Pistons are and what the organization is about," says Taraschuk, in his second year in Steinbach. "You step out of line, word spreads fast. It’s nice. It keeps everyone honest and, at the same time, it’s just awesome to have that feeling where everyone knows who you are."

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Paul Dyck never imagined he would be a hockey lifer.

After a 15-year pro playing career in the minors and in Europe came to an end following the 2005-06 season, he turned down an offer to become an amateur scout for an NHL team and decided to strike out on his own. He explored business opportunities and, for four years, was involved in developing and pursuing a patent for a helmet that protected horses during transport.

Steinbach Piston fans buy tickets for Wednesday's game.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Steinbach Piston fans buy tickets for Wednesday's game.

But by 2010, the Pistons were still owned by Mel Sonnenberg and James Rundell, who had moved the franchise from Beausejour a year earlier. Dyck's first step back into the game was as the club's assistant coach.

Midway through the 2011-12 season, head coach Rich Gosselin quit and Dyck was appointed acting boss. In the summer of 2012, he was hired as the franchise's general manager and head coach.

"I’d say probably I’ve grown into the job," says Dyck. "Post playing career, I didn’t have aspirations of staying in the game, never mind being a coach/general manager.

"At that time I was excited to get back into the game again. I had watched a handful of games in that four-year period. I don’t think I had watched more than 10 hockey games from '06 to 2009. Not because I had any bitterness toward the game or not interested -- I was just enjoying other aspects of life."

It didn't take him long to fully immerse himself in the game again, attending coaching clinics, scouting and reconnecting with many of the people he had met during his playing career.

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With his time spent in the WHL, Taraschuk isn't eligible for NCAA hockey scholarship but he still sees his time in Steinbach as a springboard to the future.

He's likely to play for a U Sports school in Canada after his overage season and he says Dyck's guidance has helped him improve his game.

"The professionalism that he brings to the club every day is incredible… he’s a true players’ coach," says Taraschuk. "Everybody loves to play for him. He’s a guy where if you’ve got a problem on the ice, off the ice, he’s willing to talk to you about it. His door is always open.

"Over the years I guess there have been a couple of guys who haven’t fit in here, but this year it’s amazing. We’ve got 24 guys here and I’ve never been on a team this close knit. Mondays it’s 'Movie Monday' and there’s usually 21-22 guys there. We go over to a billets' house and watch a movie together."

Worrad has nine goals and 22 points in 12 games and believes he's blossomed within the Pistons' system.

"With coaches that micro-manage and play very tight structures, I end up doing exactly what they say and I lose a bit of my game. I lose a bit of my hockey sense…," he says. "Coming here we have a great structure defensively and great systems but you’re given the opportunity to let your offence fly a little more. It’s different than freelancing. (Dyck) trusts you and expects you to not make it hurt it the team. My offence has developed more in the last couple of months."

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Darby Gula is another success story.

Raised in nearby Niverville, Gula moved to Steinbach for Grade 7 and has been pursuing a future in the game ever since. Earlier this month, the third-year MJHLer committed to attend Bemidji State on a hockey scholarship.

"That was pretty exciting," says Gula. "It’s something I’ve been working towards for a couple of years now… I was talking to Alaska-Fairbanks and they were going to offer me something but then I accepted Bemidji pretty early. I was also talking to Maine."

Steinbach Piston fans show up about 900 strong to a Wednesday game.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Steinbach Piston fans show up about 900 strong to a Wednesday game.

Entering Friday's action, the 19-year-old led all MJHL blue-liners with five goals and 26 points in 21 games. When he's not busy on the ice, roomies Gula and Koop are keeping active academically by taking online courses at University of Winnipeg.

Dyck promotes team goals but he also pushes the idea of self-improvement, encouraging his players to strive for a U.S. or Canadian college scholarship or advance to major junior ranks.

Two weeks ago, the entire team travelled to the University of North Dakota for a up-close look at one of the elite NCAA men's hockey programs. Pistons players came away inspired by level of play and the superb facilities at UND. On Wednesday, Fighting Hawks head coach Brad Berry (who has former Pistons forward Cole Smith on his roster) was in Steinbach to scout the Pistons when they hosted Portage.

"Knowing they’ll be here maybe makes me more nervous but you never know who’s watching – practice and games," says rookie right-winger Brady Tatro, who was playing high school hockey in Bemidji, Minn., last year. "So always have to give it your all."

xxx

In 2016-17, the Pistons were runaway regular-season MJHL champions with a 49-10-1 record, setting the table for a stunning second-round playoff loss to the Portage Terriers. The defeat left a bitter residue.

"I think after last year, being the top team in the league for so long and losing out early kinda stung a little bit," said Gula. "For the returning players, we took a lot of out that. Learning what went wrong and what we’ve gotta change for this season.

"One of our problems last year was we kinda plateaued… The good teams are good but they continue to get better and better. If we can do that we’ll be a pretty difficult team to beat."

 

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.