Interlake coaches, player lead Blaze to MWJHL title

The Prairie Blaze, whose roster includes Arborg’s Jamie Johnson (back row, third from left) and is coached by Vogar’s Kevin Monkman and Peguis First Nation’s Dale Bear, won the Manitoba Women’s Junior Hockey League title against the Silvertips at BellMTS IcePlex in Winnipeg on March 16. Laurie Anderson / Manitoba Women's Junior Hockey League

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After guiding the Peguis Juniors to their third straight Keystone Junior Hockey League title as head coach, Vogar’s Kevin Monkman decided to leave the team in the off-season to spend more time closer to his home in Winnipeg.

“(My son’s) playing atom hockey. His hockey is getting a little more serious,” he explained to The Interlake Spectator. “Instead of being on the road twice a week and weekends (for) games, I’ll be home more, I’ll be able to go to more of his games, more of his practices.”

However, the coaching bug still stuck with Monkman, and on the urging of his friend and fellow Aboriginal Team Manitoba coach Dale Bear, he joined the Prairie Blaze of the Manitoba Women’s Junior Hockey League, which was managed by Steven Daniels-Webb, another member of Peguis First Nation from Gunton.

After finishing the season 12-12-1 with 25 points and in fourth place, the team wasn’t the favourite to win the MWJHL championship. The Blaze then went on a tear in the playoffs, defeating the Northern Stars and the Western Predators before going on to win their second league title — the first came in 2012 — over the Silvertips. The Blaze clinched the championship in Game 4 with a 2-1 shootout win to cap off the best-of-five series at BellMTS IcePlex in Winnipeg on March 16.

“It’s not where you finish, it’s how you finish,” Monkman said. “We knew we had a good team and we knew once we put it together and put all the pieces in place and all of the systems in place, we knew the girls would respond and they did.”

He also described his team as quick and fast-moving with a lot of puck movement, while Arborg’s Jamie Johnson, who plays on the team as a defender, described the Prairie Blaze as “hard-working and determined.”

“We never give up and that showed throughout our playoff run against some tough competitors,” she wrote in an email to The Spectator. “We struggled in the middle of the season but we peaked at just the right time.”

The team also faced adversity during the playoffs as both of Prairie Blaze’s netminders, Kristen Hunt and Kathryn Roberts, went down with injuries. Emma Plett, who played midget hockey with the Eastman Selects during the regular season, was inserted into the lineup and played masterfully with a 7-1 record, 1.46 goals-against-average and a sparkling .938 save percentage. 

“We really buckled down in our end. We kept everything in the outside, let (Plett) see the shots. If we had a breakdown, she would make the save and that was huge for us,” Monkman said.

Thunder Bay’s Whitney Scott led the team with seven goals and 11 points in the playoffs, while Johnson, who only had two assists, impressed Monkman with her defensive play.

“She played well all season and carried that into the playoffs,” he said. “In my mind, she is (one of the) top three defensemen in the league, top four for sure. She’s a good skater, she moves the puck well … (She) plays all situations, power play, penalty kill.”

Johnson is happy to have played a part in the championship win.

“It was so rewarding to see everything come together at just the right time. I am so excited to have had the opportunity to play with this team. It was well deserved by the whole team,” she wrote. “We were very lucky to have such a dedicated group who never quit. I am glad that I was able to be a part of it.”