By RYAN MCCRACKEN on October 14, 2020.
Tavin Stadnicki was nearly done with the game of hockey.
The 22-year-old defenceman had his final season in the Heritage Junior Hockey League cut heartbreakingly short by the combination of a knee injury and a global pandemic. Dreams of captaining the Medicine Hat Cubs to a provincial championship went out the window, and his love for the game was teetering on the ledge.
“I was pretty sour with the game after I blew my knee out,” said Stadnicki, now an assistant coach with the Cubs. “I was so mad the way everything ended. I didn’t want much to do with it.”
That is, until Randy Wong entered the picture.
“Me and Randy had some talks on the phone later in the summer and it kind of got me thinking, this is a pretty good opportunity to learn from probably one of the best guys Medicine Hat minor hockey has seen,” said Stadnicki, who played under Wong in his last season of midget. “He is probably the smartest guy I’ve ever played under. He has so many ways he can change the outcome of a game. He’s just so smart with the way he juggles his lines, who fits where and how we need to play against certain teams.”
Wong, who joined the team as head coach and general manager in late August, says Stadnicki’s struggles aren’t uncommon for young men when they have to move on from a playing career, but his passion for the game was still there waiting to be reignited.
“I think struggling with an ending is very common for players like Tavin. He was a competitor, he battled hard, and all of the sudden the next day it was over. With COVID it was cut short and it doesn’t feel right. We’ve always felt the end of the year didn’t feel right,” said Wong. “For him to stay involved in the game, that’s what I did many, many years ago. I wanted to stay involved in the game and I had passion for the game and Tavin has passion. So, I was very easily able to convince him to stay involved at the coaching level.”
Stadnicki’s road to the bench was certainly a bumpy one. After recording a pair of goals and a dozen assists over 26 games as captain of the Cubs last season, the 6-foot, 181-pound blueliner was forced off the ice just as the playoff picture began to form.
“That was heartbreaking,” he said. “It felt like the last two years I had battled injuries. I had separated my shoulder the year before, and banged my elbow up a little bit at the start of last season and then Jan. 10 we were in High River and I went to go make a check and I kind of fell wrong.”
With a timeline that put him on course to return for provincials, Stadnicki put his nose to the grindstone and managed to return for Game 7 of his team’s second-round playoff series against the Coaldale Copperheads. Their playoff run ended that evening in overtime, but Medicine Hat still had a berth into provincials as host of the tournament. Then, after putting in three months of work to return, Stadnicki’s once-guaranteed ticket to the provincial stage was revoked by unforeseen circumstances.
“The whole time I kind of knew, this was going to take time but if you put in the work and do this right there’s a chance you can make it back for playoffs and definitely provincials, so I stuck to the program,” he said. “I was at physio three-four times a week, I was at the gym rehabbing. It was a long three months but I ended up coming back for Game 7 in the second round and that is the last game that I played competitive hockey. I’m grateful that I did get to play in that game. I’m sad that COVID cancelled provincials because I was really looking forward to that. I thought we had a really good team last year that had a chance to really do some damage at provincials. Last year, that was the best team I’ve ever played on.”
The status of provincials moving forward is up in the air, but there’s still a chance Medicine Hat could retain its title as host of the tournament when it inevitably returns.
“That would be bittersweet,” said Stadnicki.
As is often the case in junior B, Stadnicki has been doing all this while balancing a career as an electrician at Spider Electric – now three months away from becoming a journeyman – and putting in as much time as he can at the family farm.
“The farm has been in our family for over 100 years,” he said. “It’s something I truly love doing and hopefully I one day get to be a bigger part of that.”
The competition doesn’t stop in the off-season either, as Stadnicki spends his summers competing as a team roper while preparing for his next campaign on the ice. This summer was a little different, but Stadnicki says he still managed to get in a few rodeos.
“Every year it seems like I go straight from the rink to getting horses back in shape and kind of kicking the rust off myself,” he said. “Then vice versa, as soon as the roping season ends it feels like I’m back at the rink the next week.”
Now that he’s back at the Kinplex, Stadnicki is filling a unique role for the Cubs, serving as an extra mind behind the bench while providing a direct line of communication between the players and coaching staff.
“I respect those guys and I think they have a lot of respect for me, as I was the captain for their team last year,” he said. “I think they feel comfortable, and if they don’t really feel like talking to Randy or one of the other guys about something that’s going on, they know they can come and talk to me about it, and it can be a professional conversation but to the point at the same time.”
Wong added he knew Stadnicki would be interested in a future behind the bench because he had demonstrated a desire for the role in the past. A few years ago, while playing for the Cubs, Stadnicki approached Wong hoping to fill a role on the midget AA bench. Wong says he was a bit too young for the role at the time, but that initiative ended up paying off down the road.
“It’s kind of come full circle,” said Wong. “He’s done playing, he’s stepped into the coaching shoes now and so far he’s been really good. I think he’s done exactly what I want, he’s been very approachable with the guys. He’s been that middle guy for me.”