SIJHL behind the bench: Thunder Bay North Stars head coach Robert DeGagne

THUNDER BAY, Ont. – While everyone awaits a somewhat return to normalcy, Superior International Junior Hockey League coaches are patiently waiting it out to see when the go ahead comes for a return to hockey-related activity.

In the meantime, SIJHL bench bosses are offering up their thoughts and opinions on a variety of topics on their respective clubs and the league itself.

The first of these SIJHL-produced Q&A segments features Robert DeGagne, the head coach of the Thunder Bay North Stars.

SIJHL: Your teams have won, on average, just over 40 games a season since you took over as head coach of the North Stars three years ago. You were also looking to repeat as Bill Salonen Cup champions prior to the 2020 SIJHL playoffs being called off. Why do you think your club has been so successful?

ROBERT DEGAGNE: I think we’ve done a good job in recruiting players and getting them to buy into our culture. Our leadership group works closely with coaching staff and that collaboration is extremely important. We stress that having fun, or loving the game, is vital and that is something that we strive for.

SIJHL: How special is it to have your son Robbie on the coaching staff?

RD: I’m tremendously blessed to have three fantastic boys, or should I say young men. I’m extremely proud of all of them and having Robbie behind the bench with me is just a bonus. Robbie brings a certain calm that I don’t seem to possess. He’s able to relate to the players on a different level than I can probably because of his age and character. We feel that it is important to have a good mix of young and more experienced coaches with our program. That way we have the experience and a youthful outlook to make proper decisions.

SIJHL: How are you looking to improve your club once play resumes?

RD: We are always looking at ways to improve our hockey club. We will have to replace some real good players from last season and that is always the No. 1 priority. We’re looking for players that will fill some vital roles and continue to play within our culture. We have a good class of returning players that are real quality individuals with high values and character and we will continue to build from that foundation.

SIJHL: How have you been working on recruiting and such during this time away from the rinks?

RD: We have been actively recruiting players since the cancellation of the season. We’re talking with lots of different players and trying to find the ones that will fit into our program for the upcoming season. It is a little different now as there is so much up in the air regarding when and if we will start in September. Hopefully we will be able to start this fall. What that will look like remains to be seen. As an organization we want to begin as soon as we can, but the safety of the players, staff and fans is of our utmost priority.

SIJHL: Cody Bruchkowski led the entire CJHL in goals scored this season with 63, including 58 with the North Stars. What made the SIJHL MVP such a special talent?

RD: Well, there are certain things that you can teach and there are things you can’t. Cody has the gift of scoring that you can’t teach. He also is a fantastic individual with a great work ethic and high character. Having those traits, along with his gift of scoring, make him a special person and player.

SIJHL: What do you credit your winning a second league coach of the year award to?

RD: Really, I consider the coach of the year award a team award. We have a great team of coaches and personnel that work hard and really deliver the same message. Having Mark Backor on the staff, with his experience and commitment, makes my job a lot easier. Robbie brings the youth and understanding of the player today. That is vital and gives our coaching staff a better understanding of today’s athlete. Mike Evanyk, our goalie coach, has done a fantastic job over the last three seasons. Our goaltending has been a big part of our success as a team and Mike deserves a lot of that credit. Don Dowswell, our trainer/equipment manager, may be the most important as he spends more time with the players than anyone and is always a positive figure to our young men. Don has a great pulse on the team and really understands the vibe of the room. Also, Dr. Brian Schorder, Dave McKee and our fitness expert Ron Badanai keep us all together as a team; be it treating injuries or making us better by keeping us in top physical conditioning. These are all important aspects to our success. Lastly, our top men, team president Scott Kellaway and general manger Kris Kellaway, make our jobs easy as they give us the tools to go out and get the players and really anything we need to be successful as an organization. So, for me to win the award really is saying that the men I just mentioned have won the award as well. It was a great team effort and I’m extremely proud to be part of a great team. Being able to collaborate with great people makes it fun and much easier.

SIJHL: You mentioned the importance of Don Dowswell, the league’s equipment manager and trainer of the year in 2019-20. Can you delve deeper into his value to the team?

RD: I’ve had the pleasure of working with Don for the past three years. He is a tireless worker and is always there to lend support and knowledge to every situation. Not only is he a great trainer and equipment manager, but he also fills in to drive the bus when needed. Truly the best way to describe what Don means to or organization is simple. He is a true professional and in my mind the MVP. He has the best interest or the players and the team at heart and would do anything for anyone. Don was well deserving of the SIJHL’s Equipment Manager/Trainer of the Year Award and as an organization we are very proud of the recognition that he has received.