Many thought this was the season.
The Steinbach Pistons, who lost out to the Portage Terriers in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League final the previous two years, were poised to take a run at their first championship since winning it all in the spring of 2013.
The pieces were all in place.
The Pistons, who were nationally ranked number one several times by the Canadian Junior Hockey League, suffered just eight regulation losses during the regular season schedule and finished in top spot for the first time in team history.
Unfortunately the Turnbull Trophy run came to an end when those same Terriers eliminated Steinbach in six games in the semifinals.
"One thing that we discussed after the fact with our group is that we're going to look upon the season with fond memories at some point," said Pistons head coach and general manager Paul Dyck during a break at the team's annual Spring Camp this past weekend. "They should be proud of the year. Guys worked extremely hard. You don't win 49 games by chance. We had a good group here. They were very committed. A talented group of young guys. A lot of good things happened on the ice. That was a heck of a year for us other than the finish."
Dyck, who was named the Muzz McPherson award winner as MJHL Coach of they Year this past season, said good-bye to six outstanding graduating players - Landon Plett, Wyatt Hinson, Roman Bengert, Ryan Carlson, Joseph Leonidas and captain Jordan Bochinski.
"It's very difficult in particular with the guys that you've battled with," said Dyck. "You grow to love the guys. It's an emotional time. As the season is winding down, you know these guys aren't coming back. You build some pretty strong bonds with some of the guys. This year, just like any other year, it was reciprocal. They feel the same way. They're going to miss this community. In many cases some may not be back for sometime. Just geographically, it's difficult for some of them to get back here. Hopefully the guys that are in Manitoba, we're going to continue to stay in touch with, and see on a fairly regular basis."
As one season ends - another begins.
Dyck, along with assistant coaches Joey Moggach and Graham Pollock watched over 140 players at Spring Camp this past weekend at the T.G. Smith Centre.
"It's exciting," said coach Dyck. "You love it when you see that unbridled passion of some of the young kids. They're coming here and they want to do whatever they can to catch our attention. Some are potential draft picks, some are graduating from midget and trying to make that last impression. It's always exciting. We turned the page pretty quickly here this year. We finished last week and this week we're into Spring Camp and focusing ahead to our future. It's a fun weekend. It's an intense weekend. There's a lot of hockey for us to watch and evaluate."
"Our numbers were higher this year than they've ever been," said the Pistons bench boss. "We didn't invite any more. It's an invitational camp. I'm not sure why. Maybe they're hearing some good things about our program so we're happy about that. I'm glad they came here. It gives us an opportunity to see a broader base of players to make our selections from too."
The Manitoba Junior Hockey League's annual draft of 15 year-old players will take place June 4th in Winnipeg.
The past four years the Pistons have selected forwards Max Neill of Portage & Michael King of Winnipeg, defenseman Riley Bruce of Winnipeg & forward Adam Touchette of St. Adolphe in the first round.
"They're difficult decisions because we're dealing with players that are leaving bantam," Dyck said when asked about the upcoming draft. "They're either two or three years away from playing with us. Some are 120 pounds right now and by the time they play for us they could be 170 or 180. It's hard to project where they're going to be both physically and mentally, what level their game is going to develop to."
"With Hockey Manitoba's Program of Excellence that took place last weekend, they'll cut down to the Top 40 so we'll be evaluating there. You kind of make your wish list of guys that you would like to see in your group. Some of those players may advance to the Western Hockey League before they get to our league. It's an interesting process. Not as accurate as we would like it to be just because of the age of the players and there is a lot of development ahead of them. Sometimes you get them right and sometimes you look back, just like the NHL draft, you'll see a player that's drafted in the sixth round and you wonder how did 30 teams not select him in the previous five. That happens at every level."