The last gasps of winter have brought home a hard truth for Junior B fans in Grand Forks: The Border Bruins had a bad season this year.
It holds up against just about any statistical measure in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL), and it’d be tempting to put it on Head Coach and General Manager Dave Hnatiuk.
Tempting, but unfair.
Setting that aside for now, it bears stressing that Hnatiuk is not one to make excuses.
I’ve had many an interview with him and, when he felt his team played poorly, he said so. He’s never hid the fact that the Bruins have a long way to go.
“Everyone wants more wins, myself included. As far as coaches go, that’s how everyone gets judged and it’s the stamp on your record,” he told me in early February.
The Bruins had no chance of a playoff spot in the Neil Murdoch Division and we both knew it. They went on to finish at the bottom of the league, having racked up five wins and 34 losses, according to KIJHL standings for the 2021-22 regular season.
Grand Forks had one of the worst power plays in the league. Ranking 17th out of 19 teams, they buried goals just 15 per cent of the time they had the man advantage. Even if their penalty kill was pretty decent — they ended up with a kill-rate of just over 80 per cent — one could pile on their shortcomings, real or perceived.
But there are measures of success beyond L’s and W’s. And last season was not so much about winning as remaking the team — root and branch. Fans may not have heard him, but Hnatiuk was crystal clear at the start of the exhibition season late last summer: The team was young, inexperienced and, with a couple exceptions, the boys hadn’t played together.
Again, Hnatiuk’s words paint a pretty clear picture.
“Our most veteran guy at the start of this season only had three KIJHL games under his belt.”
“It’s been a long season and we haven’t gotten a lot of on-ice wins. But the focus was always about rebuilding the team and that included a lot of community engagement and player development,” he said.
On top of the team’s gruelling practice, game and travel schedules, the boys showed up every Monday morning to chop wood at Pastor Gabe Warriner’s River Valley Community Church. From there, they helped deliver that fuel to area families that needed help heating their homes.
When it snowed, the team shovelled seniors’ walks, not for reward nor recognition. They just put in the work, knowing it had to be done.
As they sharpened their on-ice skills, volunteering in their adoptive community made them better people. It might not have improved their standings, but it built a team culture that will long outlast their first season.
“Even if we didn’t win all the time, we had lots of success in terms of our growth and our development, which is what you want when you’re playing Junior B,” Assistant Captain Jackson Smith told The Gazette.
Hnatiuk had made it clear to players like Captain Ray Warrack even before they came to town, the Bears would represent community spirit and personal responsibility.
“Dave told me about what it was going to be like out here. It sounded interesting and I thought it’d be a great opportunity for me to grow as a player and a person,” Warrack said.
“Coach,” as Warrack called him, was tough on his players after the puck dropped, but Hnatiuk was always there if the boys needed guidance off the ice.
“He’s always saying that his door’s always going to be open if we need to talk about anything outside of hockey,” right winger Daniel Macfarlane said.
Hnatiuk moulded his squad into role models for kids at Grand Forks’ Perley and Hutton elementary schools. The team could be seen shepherding these cubs at Halloween and Christmas skates at the Bears’ den at the Jack Goddard Memorial Arena.
Of course, Hnatiuk’s job was to make hockey players of the Bruins, and the team accomplished some stunning feats, despite their record.
Warrack and Smith both fondly recalled the team’s 6-1 win last December against the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, who finished the season second in the Murdoch.
It’s not every night that the bottom team takes down a division contender, but Grand Forks pulled it off. And they’ll do it again.
The Bruins are a team on the make; a re-booted organization that, like a Phoenix, will rise from its ashes.
Hnatiuk shares all of this — the good and the bad — with assistant coaches Igor Agarunov and Shane Gorman. But few would put them under the same microscope as the man in charge.
Whatever else can be said, Hnatiuk took a green team of boys and shaped them into a core of young men.
The Bruins and Grand Forks are stronger for it, no matter how you look at it.
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