Red Deer Optimist Chiefs: A new kind of hockey dynasty

Photograph by Colin Way

The national-midget-champion team’s culture starts behind the bench

Why do we play hockey? This is the question Doug Quinn posed to his Red Deer Optimist Chiefs at the time when it needed to be asked most. It was the second round of the 2013 Alberta Midget Hockey League playoffs this past March, and despite a dominant regular season (23-4-7) the Chiefs were facing elimination against the Calgary Buffaloes, down two games to one and playing on enemy soil, where they’d been trounced 5–1 just a few days earlier. It wasn’t a position Red Deer was altogether used to. After all, they were the defending national champions, a club that had won three straight provincial titles in what is considered the toughest midget league in the country.

En route to the Buffaloes’ arena, Quinn, the Chiefs’ coach and a man with a lifetime of history with the AAA franchise he once captained as a player, didn’t like what he saw. “The kids were really uptight and you could just feel the tension on that bus,” Quinn recalls. “I knew I had to change the mood and mindset.” As soon as his team reached the dressing room—a gaggle of 16- and 17-year-olds all from the Red Deer area—he instructed them not to get changed, to drop their bags and grab a seat. And then he asked them: “Why do we play?” The room stayed quiet; nervous teens aren’t exactly the most talkative bunch. Finally, one piped up. “Because we love it.”

“Exactly,” Quinn told his troops. “This game is supposed to be fun. I know there are pressures and expectations from yourselves and your families, but at the end of the day this is just a game. It’s not supposed to feel torturous like this. We might lose. It’s not the end of the world. Life goes on.”

Playing the game they loved, the Chiefs won that night. And then went back home and took the series. They won the provincial tournament, and the Pacific regional championships that followed against a loaded Vancouver Giants team. And then they won their second straight Telus Cup, a gruelling tourney of seven games in seven nights, becoming just one of four teams ever to repeat as national champs.

This season, the Chiefs are again chasing history, looking to become the first team to win three straight national titles. And with a roster that turns over year to year—only four players remain from last season—they’re creating a new kind of dynasty in the process, building continuity not on the ice but behind the bench.

It’s been a long, strange journey for Quinn to find himself back with the Chiefs. After a standout stint in his teens, he was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 1983. But when a car accident ended his NHL dreams before he could ever suit up, Quinn stepped away from the game, only coming back more than a decade later when a friend asked him to lend a hand at coaching an atom-level team in Red Deer.

It didn’t take long for Quinn to reignite his passion for the game, and after serving as an assistant, Quinn became the head coach of a group of 15-year-olds despite having only run one practice in his life. In his first season, his team won a championship (noticing a trend?), and when, in 2009, the opportunity arose to take the reigns of the Optimist Chiefs—then known as the Rebels—he seized it, surrounding himself with one of the strongest coaching staffs around. There’s junior star and local legend Rob Hamill and former NHLer Mike Moller; goalie coach Peter Friestadt had success at this level, too, and was playing pro hockey in Europe by age 20. All have seen the team through its recent run of success. “It’s allowed us to develop a culture,” says Quinn. “When new kids come in there’s a certain expectation in terms of work ethic and commitment.”

This season, another former Optimist Chief and NHL veteran, Trent Hunter, was brought aboard, and the wealth of experience on the staff has proven beneficial for both the players and Quinn. Through the first month of the 2013–14 season, the Chiefs have picked up where they left off, playing strong hockey and battling for the division lead. And while other teams may boast marquee names and top junior draft picks, the Chiefs continue to lean on their strengths, as dictated by their coach and the players he seeks. “Over the years, we’ve never had that top, elite talent,” Quinn says. “But we have depth and work ethic and we seem to have success with that formula.”

On the road to a potential three-peat, Quinn’s team, like always, will rely on that depth by rolling out four lines and pushing a pace that other teams simply won’t be able to sustain. And through it all, the coach and his players will remember not only why they play, but what it’ll be like for the teams that play them. “We’re going to be competitive,” says Quinn. “At the end of the day, if a team beats us, they beat us. But they’re going to be in for a battle, whoever it is.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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