By Dave Leaderhouse
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s coaching fraternity took a bit of a hit this summer when the Battleford North Stars’ Kevin Hasselberg and the Weyburn Red Wings’ Bryce Thoma both abruptly announced that they were leaving their positions for employment elsewhere.
Hasselberg and Thoma were both coming off pennant-winning seasons with the former also being named coach of the year. They are both young and brought new and exciting coaching styles to the league, which ultimately made the SJHL a better market.
While some might feel the league will have a tough time recovering from their departures, Hasselberg offered this assessment of the SJHL: “The league is full of new and exciting people. The league is really trying to take on its own identity that is unique to rest of the country.”
Hasselberg and Thoma certainly had a hand in developing that image.
Hasselberg arrived in the Battlefords from southern Alberta in 2011 and in five short years made the North Stars one of the dominant teams in the league. Last season they were 43-11-2-2 and won the Finning Division banner by 37 points before falling to the Flin Flon Bombers in a tough semi-final match-up.
Thoma had similar success in Weyburn after his move from the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels even though he had to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Dwight McMillan. A tough inaugural campaign was a building block for future success as last year Thoma guided Weyburn to a 35-14-5-4 mark and the Viterra Division title. They, too, also fell victim to the Bombers, losing in five games in the quarter-final round.
Both were looking forward to taking their respective teams to the next level this coming season before opportunity intervened.
“My goal and ambition is to always get to the next level,” says Hasselberg. “I didn’t anticipate going pro, but I always look at the different leagues and when I saw this position open up I immediately started the process.”
Hasselberg got in contact with the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the Southern Professional Hockey League and after a brief courtship landed the job. He says he has mixed feelings about leaving the SJHL, but is excited about what lies ahead.
“First and foremost the Battlefords North Stars are a first-class organization,” acknowledges Hasselberg. “Without their support and that of the SJHL I don’t think this opportunity would have come about.”
“When you spend as many years at one level as I have you want new challenges and now I have this opportunity and I am going to jump in with both feet and follow in the footsteps of those before me and hopefully have some success.”
Thoma, too, was content on returning to Weyburn, but when former Humboldt Bronco coach Dean Brockman was promoted to head coach of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, Thoma touched base with his old friend and things just fell into place from there.
“Dean is a great guy; he helped me a lot my first year in Weyburn,” explains Thoma. “I hadn’t been actively looking to get back into the WHL so to speak, but the more me and my family looked at it it made sense from a lot of angles.”
During Thoma’s time in Weyburn he was always separated from his family as his wife and young kids were living in Saskatoon while he honed his skills with the Red Wings. Ironically, the Thoma family will be reunited this year while the Hasselbergs will have to adjust to a long distance relationship as Hasselberg says his wife and young son will remain in the Battlefords for the first year, which he says “there is nothing exciting about that.”
Their time in the SJHL might be in the rearview mirror, but both Hasselberg and Thoma will hold the league close to their hearts and be staunch supporters forever.
“It’s a very underrated league,” says Thoma. “There are a lot of good players and coaches and a lot of NCAA schools should be spending more time in the league. I’m not saying they don’t come, but there are a lot of players that are being missed.”
“It is a bit bittersweet leaving,” added Thoma. “They (Weyburn) are going to be a good hockey team this year. I know if we hadn’t turned this thing around I might not have had a chance like this.”
Hasselberg echoed Thoma’s sentiments.
“A lot of people underestimate this league,” says Hasselberg. “The atmosphere and culture this league has – you can’t make a comparison.”
The SJHL is a development league, not just for the players, but for coaches as well. Having had both Hasselberg and Thoma in the league made it better and watching them move on to another level, while bittersweet in some ways, endorses the league mandate that it provides an opportunity for everyone to succeed.
Good luck to both in the future and thanks for raising the bar in the SJHL.