Manitoba Hockey Factory

Jonathan Toews (Reuters file photo)

Jonathan Toews (Reuters file photo)

KEN WIEBE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:27 AM ET

Manitoba in general -- and Winnipeg in particular -- is no stranger to producing hockey talent.

A recent look at the 2009-10 NHL rosters shows us 25 NHLers were either born or groomed in Manitoba, with 13 of those calling Winnipeg their birthplace, and many playing prominent roles with their respective clubs.

In two of the last three Stanley Cup finals, Manitobans had their names engraved on the famous mug -- Dustin Penner of Winkler in 2007 when he was still a member of the Anaheim Ducks and Darren Helm of St. Andrews (born in Winnipeg) with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 (Winnipegger Derek Meech was also a member of that team but he didn't get into a game during the playoffs).

St. Vital product Jonathan Toews is captain of the Chicago Blackhawks and is one of the biggest reasons the franchise has returned to prominence in the Windy City.

The Blackhawks also include homegrown talent Cam Barker and a pair of high-end players who were born in Winnipeg in Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp.

Travis Zajac is growing into a star with the New Jersey Devils coming off a 20-goal, 62-point season, while fellow Winnipegger Nigel Dawes has flourished after a move to the Calgary Flames (where he is teammates with Winnipeg's Dustin Boyd) -- recently finding himself on the top line with Jarome Iginla.

That's just scratching the surface.

So what is Manitoba doing better to help develop young talent into outstanding hockey players who advance to the Western Hockey League, Canadian and U.S. colleges and in some elite cases, on to professional hockey?

"There's been a change in the hockey culture itself over the last 10 or 15 years," said Paul Krueger, head coach of the Winnipeg Wild of the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League. "Kids want to play at a higher level and are a lot more driven. They're in better shape and a lot of them train hard and have personal trainers in the off-season. It just seems to be an evolution. Even when the season is over, guys will go and play in other leagues just to keep themselves going."

Manitobans take great pride in seeing their own advance and that helps younger players to push themselves to get better.

"These are the guys that are going to be their idols," said Krueger. "When guys like Derek Meech and Darren Helm bring the Stanley Cup around, it really plays a large part at the grassroots level for the game of hockey in this province.

"Guys go to community clubs where these guys played and you see pictures of guys who are now playing in The Show. There's a sense of pride and a sense of 'That's where I want to be.'"

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux hockey program has a history of success when it comes to bringing in Manitobans and head coach Dave Hakstol believes those players are being taught more than just the fundamentals at a young age.

"I don't think it's necessarily a style (of player)," said Hakstol. "Maybe it comes from the grassroots level and the mentality that kids from Manitoba are growing up with. There are some old-school roots about how the game should be played."

When Hakstol finds time to scout players in Winnipeg and the surrounding area, there are things he expects to see.

"It's hard to compare whether there are more (good players) in recent times, but there are a lot of quality players," said Hakstol. "When you go watch AAA bantam or AAA midget games in Manitoba, you're going to see quality players, well-coached teams and quality games."

Zajac and Toews both spent time with the Fighting Sioux earlier this decade and showed they were more than just talented hockey players during their time in the NCAA.

"They play the game the right way," said Hakstol. "I'm sure they'd tell you the same thing, they had excellent coaches in youth hockey, people that taught them not just the basics of the game, but a lot of important little parts of the game in order to be a complete player. Whether that's from your father or a youth coach, those things come from an early age on.

"A very small number of players can just get by on ability alone and the majority of players who move on to become every day NHL players and become All-star players at the NHL-level, they're roots are based on character and work ethic. You could say Travis and Jonathan were the best players on their teams during their time in the program here, but they were also our hardest working guys. For a coach, that makes your job a lot easier when you're best players are also your hardest working players. It leads to accountability throughout your roster."

Each player is different, but Tri-City Americans assistant general manager and director of player personnel Terry Bangen has noticed similar qualities that are shared by the Manitobans that have been brought in by their Western Hockey League team.

"It's not to suggest they have a monopoly on it, but the kids that do come out of there seem to be well-rounded individuals and the type of people who strive to get better and deal with adversity well," said Bangen. "All those kinds of things."

Having the right mental make-up is integral to succeeding at a higher level.

"It's difficult to become an NHL player," said Minnesota Wild assistant general manager Tom Thompson. "There's a lot of pressures. You have to battle teammates for ice time, you have to force teams to either draft you or give you a scholarship. Then you have to force the NHL team to sign you. It's a battle.

"You have to have the right personality for that."

ken.wiebe@sunmedia.ca


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