BRITISH COLUMBIA

Broncos hope to re-live past glory under former NHLer Mark Lamb

01/09/2014 01:08 EST | Updated 03/11/2014 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - Mark Lamb got the call when he was about to go on vacation. The struggling Swift Current Broncos needed a new coach and contacted the former NHL player to gauge his interest.

Lamb, who was born and raised in the Swift Current area, had just lost his job as a Dallas Stars assistant due to a management change. Since he would soon be back in Southwestern Saskatchewan to visit family, Lamb agreed to an interview.

Almost before he knew it, he was hired as both general manager and coach of the WHL club.

"Everything was happening so quickly," he recalled.

Improvement, however, came slowly as the Broncos, who reside in the WHL's smallest market, continued to struggle in his first four seasons. But this season, the Broncos are contending for their first WHL title since 1992-93 and hoping for another Memorial Cup berth after last winning the Canadian junior crown in 1988-89.

Heading into Friday's home game against the Saskatoon Blades, the Broncos sit second in the Eastern Conference with a 22-15-1-5 record.

"We have a lot of really good pieces to our team," said Lamb, adding the team's strengths are its excellent goaltending and defencemen's puck-moving ability.

But in the early days, Lamb did not feel he had the right mix as he tried to revamp the team's roster, scouting staff and other parts of its hockey operations while learning both of his new jobs.

"I had never been a head coach before and I had never been a GM before," he said. "It was a real eye opener."

Lamb also raised some people's eyebrows in 2010-11 when he took the highly unusual step of trading star centre Cody Eakin, now with Dallas, to the Kootenay Ice in a one-for-eight deal that returned five players and three bantam draft choices.

"I really felt we had to take a step back (in the standings) if we wanted to move forward," said Lamb.

Liam Foo-Choo, chairman of the community-owned team's board, called the trade "a real watershed moment" in the franchise's "renewal" for which he credits Lamb. Although not all of the acquired players remain with the team, some — like Colby Cave, now the team's captain — are playing key roles.

Cave, a 19-year-old centre from Battleford, Sask., says players are looking forward to their chance to make history.

"It's been a long time, obviously, since the 1989 Memorial Cup," said Cave. "It's been a while since the team has had a lot of success, so we know that as a group in the dressing room and we want to go far. We want to be playing hockey into May."

The Broncos hope that success in the near future will honour the team's storied past and four players who died in a bus crash. Brent Ruff (the brother of Dallas coach Lindy Ruff), Trent Kresse, Scott Krueger and Chris Mantyka died when the team's bus was travelling on an icy patch of highway outside Swift Current and flipped on its side Dec. 30, 1986.

"The bus crash is something that really motivates us. It drives everybody," said Lamb, who won a Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers in 1989-90 and a Turner Cup with Houston of the International Hockey League as a player-assistant coach in 1998-99.

If the Broncos do win the WHL championship, it would be the first since convicted sex offender Graham James coached them to their two league titles and Memorial Cup victory. But Lamb said the team is not aiming to win a title to separate itself from James, whose victims included former NHLers Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury.

"We don't talk about Graham," said Lamb. "It's such a black cloud."

In the past four seasons, the Broncos missed the playoffs twice and failed to advance beyond the first round in the other two, including 2012-13 when they were eliminated by the Calgary Hitmen. Although Swift Current has gone 3-4-1-2 in its past 10 games, Lamb and his players believe they can contend when the season is on the line in the spring.

Lamb does not want to think about his team's title hopes until the playoffs draw closer, but it's evident that players, and some of Swift Current's approximately 18,000 residents and surrounding population of about 70,000, are daring to dream big.

"We're a hard-working team, and we care for each other and we play for each other," said Cave. "Coming from a small town, we want people to know that we're a contender, no matter what the size of the centre that we play in."

According to Foo-Choo and Lamb, the Broncos franchise has less margin for error because of its small-market status. The club, which plays in an arena that seats only 2,860, has struggled financially in recent campaigns. This season, said Foo-Choo, attendance is down but revenues are up as the non-profit organization takes in more dollars via increased advertising, corporate sales, regional marketing and fundraising efforts.

Foo-Choo said the club, which models itself after the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders and NFL's Green Bay Packers, also has to battle negative stereotypes about small-town life when selling the community's benefits to teenage recruits and their parents. But according to current Broncos, playing in a smaller centre has some distinct advantages.

"You've got a lot of guys coming from big cities like Calgary and Edmonton and Winnipeg (and) Vancouver," said Cave. "It's a different environment, but I think it brings the guys together a lot more. You see the guys around town. You run into them pretty often compared to how you would in a Calgary and a Vancouver."

Centre Nathan Burns, 20, who was acquired in a Jan. 1 trade from Saskatoon and has also played for the Vancouver Giants, said it is definitely different playing in Swift Current, where "it feels like everybody knows everybody." But he believes the team's closeness will play a critical role in the playoffs.

He likened the Broncos to the Vancouver squad which reached the Western Conference finals when he played for them as a 16-year-old. That Giants squad was also a close-knit group and, like the Broncos, had considerable size on its first and second lines.

Burns, an Edmonton native who is completing his junior eligibility, hopes he can help Lamb's decision to acquire him pay off in the playoffs.

"At the end of my junior career, I obviously want to go as far as I can and end it off on a good note," said Burns. "Here in Swift Current, I have a really good chance of doing that."

Notes_Lamb also served one season as an assistant coach with the Oilers. His NHL playing career included stints with Detroit, Ottawa, Philadelphia, and Montreal. He also played for several minor-league teams in addition to Houston as well as a German club. … While playing hockey as a youngster, Lamb competed in roping events at rodeos.