Head Coach/GM Ryan Papaioannou has taken the Brooks Bandits hockey club to lofty places it has never seen in its dozen years of existence. While the club has had its share of regular season success, it still seeks its first Enerflex Cup, and the Bandits are certainly in a position to give it a good run this season.
Sitting 25 points atop the AJHL South, the team will have the luxury of a first-round bye.
Is clinching that bye so early going to be a focus problem for the Bandits?
Papaioannou doesn’t think so. He’s thinking outside the box.
“We’re really focusing on the long-term goal, an AJHL championship, and to accomplish that, we want to put up as many points as we can and give us the best possible chance at home ice advantage,” he says.
“If we’re lucky enough to make it through to the Enerflex Cup Finals, we want that series to be starting right here in Brooks.”
And the fact Brooks has become a place that no AJHL squad wants to have to travel to and win a game, is part of the evolution of culture in the southeastern Alberta community.
Papaioannou is the seventh head man in the history of the franchise, taking over from current Lloydminster bench boss Brian Curran early in the 2009-10 campaign. He says initially, it was difficult gig.
“I think I knew what I was getting into, I was ready, but it wasn’t under ideal circumstances. There was plenty of controversy around the team, and we chose a new direction and stuck to that and we’ve had some success.”
That success has been predicated on expanding the recruiting range of the team, promoting the club and its program, and having a little historical help as well.
“We knew that to be successful, we had to not only be recruiting players locally, from Medicine Hat and Lethbridge – there’s nothing wrong with that approach – but we felt we needed to be bringing in players from Northern Alberta and the U.S. as well, and we’ve done that.”
To help in that recruiting look no further than Bandit alumnist Curtis Glencross of the Calgary Flames who had his No. 17 jersey retired by the club in December.
“Curtis was really the first guy from the team to make it as a full-time NHL player. The fact he’s just down the road in Calgary and could come and take part in the ceremony, stay close with the team, that’s a bonus.”
Papaioannou cut his AJHL teeth playing for the Don Phelps-led Calgary Canucks after a few seasons in the WHL. Does standing on a bench coaching against AJHL juggernauts such as Gord Thibodeau, Fran Gow or Boris Rybalka still seem strange or intimidating?
“I had a chance to coach against Don in a playoff series in my first year, and I remember it seeming a little surreal, but you know, young coaches look up to the Gord’s, Boris’s and Fran’s, seeing what they have accomplished and hoping we can accomplish the same things one day.”
While the community has embraced this team in a magical year, the season started out anything but magical. In July, Bandit Nick Crosby was killed in an automobile accident near Field, B.C.
Crosby was born in San Francisco, grew up in Idaho, and loved everything about hockey.
Nicknamed “Grit and Grace” by his friends, Crosby dreamt of a hockey career and scholarship; his untimely death hit the team and the community hard.
“We’ve talked about it and understand that when things are tough, we’re not doing so well, we realize that we still have the opportunity to play hockey – and just live our lives, something, sadly, he doesn’t.”
And as the Bandits chase that first title, make no mistake, Crosby will be along for the ride.
His sweater hangs above centre ice at the Centennial Regional Arena.
“Anybody who wants to know what Nick meant to this club, still means…, should see how the team goes to centre ice and salutes his jersey after our home games,” says Papaioannou.
“It’s very touching.”