January was a historic month for the coaching staff of the Portage Terriers. With a home-ice win over the Winnipeg Blues on the 17th, head coach and general manager Blake Spiller picked up win number 671 behind the bench which is an all-time regular season record in the MJHL.
It was the 2001 season that Spiller first showed up behind the bench with the team as an assistant coach to Don MacGillvray. While they don't record wins for assistants, it's worth noting Spiller picked up 181 wins and a league championship in that capacity. MacGillvray, one of the people Spiller passed on the way to the record, is third on the all time list and is currently part of the coaching staff of the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL.
The head coaching position for the Terriers became available in 2006 and Spiller took on the role with Paul Harland as the assistant. The two friends have been together ever since and while most people on the list recorded their wins with numerous teams, Spiller and Harland have recorded them all with the Terriers. Spiller commented on the start they had.
"Paul and I thought before we first started that hopefully get through that first season and keep our jobs. We wanted to get off to a good start. I thought we had a pretty good club and then we made some moves and ended up winning a championship fairly quick. That got us established and got us going. The biggest thing all along is you try bring back guys that have been to the wars and know how to win, those guys have always been key for us."
The coaching duo didn't stop at one championship as they now have 8 to their credit along with the 2015 National Championship and many of key wins as well. Spiller already held every MJHL playoff coaching record and the regular season mark, held by Doug Stokes, was the last one to fall. The humble coach downplayed the accomplishment and even though he was happy to record the feat, it wasn't for the reasons you might think.
"Obviously it's a good record to get out of the way but it was a little bit of a distraction at times this season, I felt anyway. We've had some real good teams over the years. Some highlights are winning the national championship on home ice, but I think there were some other years I look back on and there's one year that we won it when we finished fourth in the league and a couple of times when we finished third. That always feels good after a grueling season"
It was the 2007/2008 team that captured the first championship for Spiller and Harland. That team finished first with a 42-15-5 record and won the league by losing a measly 4 times in the entire playoffs. It was a squad led by Jeremy Dawes, Mike Audino, Riley Nixdorf and Eric Delong, all players who were a big part of establishing what was to come. 7 more championships, a couple of Anavet Cups and a National Championship on home ice in 2015.
Assistant coach Paul Harland noted they have had to adjust over the years as the style of the game has changed along with some of the rules. The team also moved from playing their home games at the Centennial Arena to Stride Place where they won a championship the first year the facility was open. For the most part, Spiller focuses on the forwards and Harland the defensemen and that formula has worked very well. The assistant comments on the respect level they have.
"I guess the biggest thing for me and him is that we get along quite well. I mean, there are times that we don't agree on stuff, but as professionals doing this, we know he's the boss and he's got the final say. We do bounce a lot of ideas off each other and we install them if we think they're going to work. And if they don't work, we move on and do something else. He's a really good hockey person and he continues to educate himself on the way the game's changed and how we can implement some things to help us. He works hard at improving and changing with the times"
The coaching duo also had the opportunity to guide their sons who both racked up numerous seasons with the team. Spiller's son A.J. was able to travel back from New Zealand the night his dad was honoured for his accomplishments.
Spiller will be looking to add to his win total this weekend with home games Saturday night against Swan Valley and Sunday night against OCN. That game starts at 6:30 and is also Stick it to Cancer night. The club has teamed up with the Portage Firefighters who have donated the jerseys the team will wear. Those jerseys are then being auctioned off with proceeds to Central Plains Cancer Services.
Most Regular Season Wins by an MJHL Coach (as of February 3rd)
1. Blake Spiller - 673
2. Doug Stokes - 670
3. Don MacGillvray - 669
Most Turnbull Cup League Championships as a Head Coach
1. Blake Spiller - 8 (2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019) *** one as an assistant in 2005***
2. Walter Monson - 4 (1946, 1948, 1951,1952)
Several tied with three titles
Only three coaches in the MJHL have won the National Championship - Blake Spiller in 2015, George Dorman in 1974 with Selkirk and Muzz MacPherson with the Terriers in 1973. Portage la Prairie is the only community in Canada to have won the Memorial Cup, RBC Cup, and the Centennial Cup.