It's hard to imagine a team going from laughing stock of a
league to bored with winning in a span of just five seasons.
That's exactly what the Southern Oregon Spartans did over
their short tenure in the Northern Pacific Hockey League, compelling them to
depart the for the greener grass of the Western States Hockey League, this
The franchise began play in the NORPAC during the 2007-2008
season and won just four times over their first two years in the league.
New ownership took over the team prior to the 2009-2010
season and quickly transformed the Rogue Valley Wranglers, a team synonymous
with losing, into the Southern Oregon Spartans.
It may have just been a name change and logo redesign but the
facelift served as a changing of the guard, where losing would no longer be
The Spartans climbed out of the cellar that season, winning
eight games and starting what would end up being one of the most dramatic
"worst to firsts" you will ever see.
The 2010-2011 season was their breakout year, as Southern
Oregon finished the regular season with 72 points, second to only the Seattle
Totems in the Pacific Division of the NORPAC.
As if the club hadn't faced enough adversity over their
short history, head coach Steve Chelios left the team just days prior to their
first-ever playoff appearance.
Without the only head coach the franchise had ever known,
the Spartans were still able to beat the Eugene Generals in the opening round, before
quickly being swept by the rival Totems in the second round and bounced from
Fearing a return to oblivion, Spartans' ownership was very
quick to bring in Mike Stanaway to coach the team and keep the momentum going.
Stanaway was fresh off a successful coaching stint in the
Great Lakes Junior Hockey League, where the Michigan-native helped build the
Central Wisconsin Saints into a perennial league power, in just two seasons.
His first Spartans squad was built exactly as predicted,
with size, speed and plenty of players from the Midwest.
Stanaway had an impact immediately, leading the team to a
9-2-0 record to begin the year, catapulting a franchise that was once forgotten
into first place in the seven-team league; a spot which they held nearly all
At the midway point of the year, the Spartans were still
trudging along when Stanaway and Co. decided to dip their toes into the WSHL
water, by participating at the annual All-League Showcase in Las Vegas.
Stanaway told me he loved the idea of putting his team on a new
stage but regrets making the decision so late in the season, as he felt his
team was ill prepared for the challenges they would face in Sin City.
He told me he felt as though many of his players had
already, "checked-out for the holiday break" and with the games meaning nothing
in the NORPAC standings, it didn't hold us much importance as it did for the
four WSHL teams they faced.
The leaders of the NORPAC at the time went winless over
their four games, infuriating Stanaway, who had the entire holiday break to
think about it. Needless to say, the week the players returned to Medford,
Oregon was not a leisurely one.
The Spartans continued playing solid hockey up until the
very last game of the regular season but ended up just three points back of the
After beating the Yellowstone Quake three games to one in
the opening round of the playoffs, the Spartans were then set to make their
first-ever appearance in the Cascade Cup, where the NORPAC's post-season
champion would be decided.
As fate would have it, they would face the hated Seattle Totems
in a best of five series that was predicted to be very tight.
Every game during the regular season between the two was
close and nobody expected either team to sweep but the Spartans did just that,
winning three straight games and lifting the Cascade Cup.
Needless to say, Stanaway set the bar high; one season in
Medford, one league championship.
But why, after three seasons of struggle, would you leave a
league you finally made it to the top in?
Well, Stanaway explained to me that the decision to leave
the NORPAC was a combination of a couple of factors.
One reason was the overall level of competition.
The WSHL, now up to 22 teams over 12 states, provides a lot
more parity and depth than the seven-team NORPAC.
Stanaway didn't want to sound as though he was bragging or to
come off a tad arrogant but he felt as if his team knew they were going to win every
game they played that wasn't against Seattle and they nearly became bored with
the other five teams in the league.
He also feels that the WSHL provides a better stage for
players looking to be scouted by colleges, with the Showcase being the
granddaddy of them all.
Put the two together and he feels that it was a no brainer
to make the move.
As happy as the Spartans were to move to the WSHL, Commissioner
Ron White and the other 20 teams in the league are just as happy to have them,
along with their best buds, the Seattle Totems.
The two teams have both been the class of the NORPAC over
the past few years and each squad, despite rough outings in the Showcase, is
expected to jump right in and contend for the league title this season.
Players Moving Up:
Just like most WSHL coaches, Stanaway feels that moving
players on to college hockey is far more rewarding than winning games or league
championships, as nice as that might be.
From last season's team, five players will be playing
college hockey in the fall and one player has already committed to a school for
the 2013-2014 season, after he finishes up one last year in Medford.
Forwards Joey White
and Mike Leskun will stick together
and play at Worcester State, while fellow forward Nick Picicci will be nearby at Becker College. Michael Tallo won't be too far away either, as he'll play at
Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire.
The Spartans will also say goodbye and good luck to star defenseman
Luke Nickels, who will play at
Johnson and Wales.
Despite some of the big guns moving on, Stanaway is very
excited about his group of returning forwards.
Anthony Golio is
the headliner of the bunch, who showed his skills in just a handful of games
with the Spartans, after spending most of last season in the Manitoba Junior
Stanaway describes him as an ultra speedy player who can put
the puck in the net and also play a physical game.
Also returning is the Tomas Holmstrom-like Nick Stirmel, who is a beast in front
of the oppositions' net. It's not always pretty but the kid simply gets the job
Scott Dunham will
also return this fall, where he is expected to fill a bigger offensive role. He
is a big kid who lets his physical presence be known each and every night he's
in the lineup.
Stanaway is also very excited about the new crop of players he
has coming in, led by Kurtis Klinger,
who comes to the Spartans after spending last season with the Los Angeles Jr.
Kings 18AAA team.
One of the few west coast players recruited by Stanaway, Klinger
turned heads at main camp, where he showed off his scoring touch.
A couple of junior hockey veterans also have Stanaway
excited, as the feisty Cody Chiverton
comes over from the Granite City Lumberjacks of the NA3HL and Dan Doyle via the Chicago Bulldogs of
There are also two more youngsters making their junior
hockey debut this season that should help boost the offense.
comes from the Erie Warriors youth program and Zach Comfort was the leading point scorer in the Wisconsin Valley Conference
(High School Hockey) last season. Although young, each guy knows how to put the
puck in the net and will be welcomed additions to an already deep forward
With Luke Nickels, the defensive MVP of the NORPAC last
season off to college, Stanaway is expecting the four returners to his blue
line to all help carry the load.
Alex O'Leary, who
had a stint in the Tier II North American Hockey League last season before returning
to the Spartans, has signed on to come back. He does just about everything well
and is a great leader on and off the ice.
Connor Quinn has
already committed to Northland College but will spend one more year in Medford
before beginning his collegiate journey.
Nick DeSimone has
the most offensive potential of the group but also plays responsibly in his own
end, where he loves to throw the weight around.
Saving the biggest for last, Tyler Dunn is an imposing figure, standing six feet seven inches
tall. Understandably, he was one of the most feared fighters in the NORPAC last
There are also two rookies that Stanaway is very high on,
with the first being Mike Kowicki.
I said Stanaway likes speedy Midwest boys and Kowicki is
just that. A product of the Marquette
Electricians youth program, the smooth skater reminds Stanaway a lot of Luke
Luke Lampe is a
bigger kid that skates very well for his size and is trustable in all situations.
Stanaway does not have a lot to worry about with his stacked
offense and veteran-laden defensive corps but his goaltending situation may be
more of a project.
No veterans return to the team but Maxwell Richter, who played last season in the GLJHL, is expected
to battle for the number one job. He's described as a very agile kid, who is in
peak physical condition.
The other guy fighting for the top spot is Jack McMahon, who comes out of the competitive
high school ranks in Wisconsin. He's a bigger goaltender, who can rely more on
his size than the smaller Richter.
If things pan out the way Stanaway hopes, the Spartans'
transition into the WSHL will be a relatively seamless one.
Of course, they'll have the defending back-to-back Thorne
Cup Champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads, hated rival Seattle Totems and the up and
coming Ogden Mustangs and Salt Lake City Moose to deal with in their division
but they are excited to see some new competition.
"Medford's Madhouse" where the Spartans play their home
games, was sold-out 21 times last season and is famous across junior hockey for
being one of the loudest and toughest buildings to play in. Stanaway gets
chills when he imagines just how rowdy the building will be when teams like
Idaho and Fresno come to town.
The Southern Oregon Spartans aren't going to waste any time
climbing to the top of the WSHL and they are fully expected to contend for a
Thorne Cup Title as early as this season.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League