Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League

Saskatchewan’s Finest: Mils’ playoff hopes personal for Kostyshyn

(photo credit to Outer Edge Imagery)

(Article written and submitted by Jamie Neugebauer)

To know Melville Millionaires head coach and general manager Doug Johnson at all is to understand how much he loves his family.

So, when he says the following about Payton Kostyshyn, a local and his captain, it says everything about the 20-year-old defenceman.

“He can babysit my kids anytime he wants,” Johnson says, in all honesty, “I don’t think I can give a greater recommendation than that.

“He is just a tremendous human being. People can talk about the hockey player, but you know you’re only a hockey player for really a drop in the bucket of your life, and as a person he’s just an outstanding young man.”

A rugged defence-first blueliner, the 6-foot-3, 212-pounder has played 110 games for his hometown team. Exactly zero of those have been in the post-season as the club has not reached it since a 2018 survivor-series exit at the hands of the Weyburn Red Wings.

Kostyshyn lights up when asked about the club’s resurgence this year as a real factor in the middle of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff race.

“People are coming up to me and talking to me all the time, even coming up to my parents,” he says, “and just saying how much they love to come to the rink again.

“People here love the Mils and are excited because they’re not coming to watch us lose like the last couple of years; they know now we have a good chance to win every night, so I think it’s really good for the community. All of us (on the team) so badly want to bring playoff hockey back into town.”

Payton’s family lives in Melville but like many in the area commute on occasion to larger Yorkton for work. His mother Leanne is a hairdresser and educational assistant, while his dad Brian, like many in the area, works for the Canadian National Railway.

They would regularly take young Payton to Mils games as the club made deep playoff runs in the early and mid-2010s, and so it is no stretch to say that he wears his heart on his sleeve every time he dons the blue and white jersey.

To be named captain is just the cherry on top.

“It was really an honour,” he says.

“Being able to lead my hometown team kind of the team I’ve been looking up to my whole life going to games as a kid all the time, it was just incredible. It’s nice to be able to be the leader of this team and have all these young kids around town looking up to you kind of; it’s a really good feeling.”

Coach Johnson has had some remarkable captains over his 14 years connected with the league and has won everything there is to win in the league.

Doug is also known for being very much a ‘straight-shooter’, so to hear the long-time SJHL bench boss praise the player so effusively says a lot.

“I don’t think there is a stronger player in our league,” he says.

“Yes, he’s a massive individual, but he’s also really put in the time and understands his body. He has man-strength already, so physicality is obviously a big part of his game. The thing that people don’t see is just the skill level. He shoots the puck a ton; he probably shoots the puck harder than anybody I’ve ever worked with other than maybe (former league all-star and SJHL champion) Jordan Simoneau. He’s also made some plays where we’re all just like ‘We did not see that coming’.”

A 20-minute-plus-per-night player, who plays in all situations, on top of being the emotional leader of the team, his loss to a freak skull injury in early November of this season was sorely felt by the (at the time) young roster. He was out of action throughout most of the final two months of 2023, and the team trod water at a clip of 4-9 in his 13-game absence.

“We were playing Estevan (on Nov. 10),” he says, “I was on the power play and I put a puck down low and the guy came from the other side of me and I had no idea was coming in. He got me really good and smoked my head on the ice, so it was tough.

“The team wasn’t doing too well for a bit there and the tough part was just watching everybody kind of work through the rough patch and try to start pulling some wins together and trying to figure it out. I just really wanted to get back on the ice because there’s only so much you can do with just talking to the guys, and not being able to get out there and actually help them out too.”

The Mils have gone 5-2 since his Dec. 30 return and have crawled up into fifth place in the league.

Adversity, and the ‘path less taken’ is nothing new to the 2003-born blue liner.

Unheralded and undrafted out of the Melville Millionaires U15s, Payton spent a year playing AA at the U18 level at home when a tryout with the nearby Yorkton Maulers AAA did not pan out in 2018-19.

A strong season at that level led to an audition with the far-away Battlefords Stars, where he finally found his groove, and when he was promoted to the captaincy of the Stars during the Covid-shortened 2020-21 campaign, he caught the eye of then-Mils boss Mike Rooney.

He has been told his whole life that he cannot skate well enough and that his hands are not good enough, but the drive to overcome the negativity and naysayers appears overabundant in the mature, well-spoken Kostyshyn.

“I think he can even do more than he believes,” says Coach Johnson.

“I think we’ve talked about the skill level, but there is a lot more skill there than then people may see. (Myself and our staff) giving him a little belief and a little trust to do things… I think he’s handled it extraordinarily well, and you see some of the things that he does that, the way he can physically dominate opposition players, you know it’s really helping the team. He wants to win his bad as anybody.”

The club’s hiring of the veteran Johnson in the off-season has been a boon for Kostyshyn.

A career high in points with 11 through 23 games, and a plus-eight rating are both impressive for a man who plays such a big role as a shutdown specialist, and as an aggressive, imposing defence-first presence, he fits perfectly into Johnson’s famous suffocating defensive system.

Yet for as loud as Payton’s game is on the ice, the confident humility he brings off the ice makes Melville’s hometown hero easy to cheer for.

“I guess my thing is just that everything happens for a reason,” he says.

“(Throughout my whole career) everybody kept telling me ‘just don’t give up, you just gotta keep going for it, you got nothing to lose’. You might not always make the team (you want when you are young), but that doesn’t mean you give up. Even if you don’t make it in your second year, or your third year, just stay consistent with what you’re doing and try to be the best you can be. That’s just how I see things.”

The Millionaires, way underrated in the pre-season, are likely the feel-good story of the SJHL so far, and so it makes perfect sense that a story like Kostyshyn is front and centre in their success in the 2023-24 season.