Came up from the bottom

How the Raiders Jr. Hockey Club went from winless to wonderful

By: Jared Story

Posted: 02/16/2016 10:44 AM

When Lorne "Ned" Sanders took over the Seven Oaks Raiders in late 2009 he knew he had a fixer-upper on his hands.

The junior hockey team was the basement dweller of the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League (MMJHL). The Raiders — who were winless to start the 2009-10 season — had posted a dismal record of four wins and 40 losses and one overtime loss the season prior, slightly better than its 3-40-2 record in the 2007-08.

Sanders, an original Raider, played for the team in its inaugural season of 1977-78. The new northwest Winnipeg team — which played out of West Kildonan Arena — managed to make the playoffs that first year.

In 1978-79 the Raiders went 31-10-1 to win the Art Moug Trophy for the best regular season record in the MMJHL. In 1979-80 the Raiders put up an even more impressive 36-6-0 regular season record and won its first Jack McKenzie Trophy as MMJHL playoff champions.  

So, how had the once successful Seven Oaks franchise fallen so far? Sanders said it didn’t take long to figure out why the Raiders were shooting wide.

"When we took it over, I went into the dressing room...I didn’t see a lot of local," said Sanders, 55, currently the Raiders president and GM.

"The way it was explained to me is that when you fall on hard times, the supply of hockey players dries up in your area. But, there are enough players in this league that still want to play. So, if you were cut from Charleswood, there was always room at Seven Oaks. It got to the point where the league was giving exemptions, because you never want to see a team fall out. If a team is allowed six imports, maybe Seven Oaks is allowed eight imports to continue on."

Local content wasn’t a concern when Gerard McDonald suited up for the Raiders. McDonald, the Raiders’ first-ever captain, said he chose Seven Oaks because the local junior A team wasn’t local enough.

"Benny (Hatskin), who was the owner of the Kildonan North Stars, I asked him who on the team was from West Kildonan and he said nobody. Seven Oaks was starting a new MMJHL team so I just said ‘That’s it. I’m going there to play with them,’" said McDonald, 57. "It was simple as that. I wanted to play with my buddies, so I went to the Raiders."

Sanders knew that to improve the Raiders, he’d need to recruit kids from the hood. Fortunately, he knew a few from having a son who was 17 at the time. He was also familiar with the area’s young athletes from coaching the West Kildonan Wolverines lacrosse team and working as a scout for the Western Hockey League’s Chilliwack Bruins.

The first player to commit to the Sanders-led Raiders was a skilled six-foot-three defenceman named Jordan Lisowick. "He was the first kid to step up, and friends want to play with their friends, so from Lisowick we got that group of ’92-born players Ryan Magalas, Ryan Seekings, Mat McIntosh. They were the core group. They were the first to come in and commit to us when they had options to go everywhere else. They took a leap of faith in us and it paid huge dividends."

Also helping to lure players to the Raiders was the hiring of Andy Williamson as head coach. A proven winner, Williamson – who suited up for the Raiders from 1988 to 1991 — coached the Charleswood Hawks to seven MMJHL championships between 2001 and 2010.

With Sanders and Williamson at the helm, the newly named Raiders Jr. Hockey Club started to turn the ship around, putting up a respectable 23-14-8 in 2010-11, good for fourth in the MMJHL.

In 2011-12, the Raiders went 28-11-1 in the regular season, second in the MMJHL, and lost in game six of the semifinals to the Ft. Garry/Ft. Rouge Twins. In 2012-13, the Raiders again advanced to the semifinals, losing to the Pembina Valley Twisters in game seven.

The next season the team did something it hadn’t in 34 years — it won it all.

The Raiders beat the St. Boniface Riels in five games in the 2013-14 MMJHL finals to take the Jack McKenzie Trophy. Lisowick was named MVP of the playoffs after leading the league in postseason scoring.

Raiders assistant GM Stephen Bjornson suited up for the Raiders from 1990 to 1994. Bjornson never won a championship during his playing days, but said winning from a staff position was plenty satisfying.

"There’s no better feeling in the world, and it’s a different feeling than you’d expect," said Bjornson, 43. "It’s the feeling of reward from all the hard work, not I beat you, just the culmination of ‘Man, we put a lot of work into this.’"

Cam Hildebrand, 24, wasn’t lucky enough to be on that championship team, captaining the Raiders in 2011-12 and 2012-13. However, Hildebrand, now a Raiders assistant coach, said he feels like he had a hand in hoisting the Jack McKenzie Trophy.

"Once a Raider always a Raider," Hildebrand said. "Over the last six years the program has developed, and every season sets up the next season. I think our program is continually driving in the right direction."

Hildebrand said his time with the Raiders also set him up for life. The club prides itself on its work in the community, its players taking part in I Love to Read Month and donating their time to soup kitchens. Hildebrand even visited Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. as a team leader for Air Canada’s Dreams Take Flight program. "It opens your eyes in terms of helping underprivileged kids or kids with illnesses," said Hildebrand of Dreams Take Flight. "It just goes to show the type of organization we are, we give back. But, from an individual standpoint, it’s something you take in and you grow from. That experience (Dreams Take Flight) alone, when I entered my career in commercial real estate, it’s something that looks very good on a resume and you earn a lot of respect for."

For young hockey players, it’s easier to build your resume playing in the MMJHL than it would be playing in a travel-intensive league like the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. With only two teams in the MMJHL located past the Perimeter (the Stonewall Jets and Morris-based Pembina Valley), players have time to work or attend post-secondary school.

"They’re graduating from university and moving on to their careers right out of hockey," Williamson said. "They’ve got that jump start on their peers that chose the other path."

It’s never been better to be a Raider. The team said goodbye to Billy Mosienko Arena at the end of last season and now calls Seven Oaks Arena home. A new, state-of-the-art facility, Seven Oaks Arena contains the Raiders very own dressing room and players’ lounge room, as well as NRG Athletes Therapy Fitness, who the Raiders partner with for dryland training and injury rehabilitation.

Oh, and the team has a record of 28-8-3, its 59 points first in the MMJHL (as of Feb. 16).

The Raiders will have to stay strong down the stretch, with the Hawks only three points back of the Raiders in the standings. Williamson said the work never ends and takes time away from family and work duties. "But, these guys are more than worth it. Whatever we’re giving them, we get as much back," Williamson said.

"If you want to stay young, hang around a junior hockey team," Sanders added.

"The names and the faces change, but the characters remain the same."

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