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Tri-City Herald: Tory goes the distance to find gold mine

By Annie Fowler | Tri-City Herald

Tri-City Americans fans became familiar with Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2003 when the team drafted Jonathan Toews, a smooth-skating forward with skills beyond his years.

Winnipeg, on the other hand, came to know the Americans as the team that Toews walked away from, choosing instead to play high school hockey at Shattuck St. Mary’s and college hockey at North Dakota.

Toews might have spurned the Americans, but general manager Bob Tory kept going back to Winnipeg looking for the next diamond in the rough. He ended up finding a vein of talented players.

“It’s a nice place,” Tory said of Winnipeg. “It’s a metropolitan city with a lot of culture, history and a big tradition in sports, not just hockey, but football, baseball, soccer and curling.”

But it was the hockey that drew Tory to Winnipeg in 2002, when he traveled nearly 1,300 miles to watch Toews, then 14.

“I ended up going to Winnipeg to recruit Jonathan, and in the process, I saw a lot of other games and other players,” Tory said. “Hockey there is highly competitive, and it was a market that was kind of untapped. I think maybe others were leery of the distance, and rightly so.”

Tory tried to bring Toews to the Tri-Cities, drafting the now-Chicago Blackhawks captain first overall in the 2003 WHL bantam draft. But the relationship never blossomed.

Tory returned to Winnipeg the following year and took goaltender Chet Pickard in the fifth round (89th overall) of the bantam draft. The next year, he took two defensemen — Eric Mestery (first round, seventh overall) and Tyler Schmidt (second round, 27th overall).

Jason Gardiner and Adam Hughesman were drafted in 2006. Along the way, Tory listed players from Winnipeg, and the Americans’ roster now boasts eight Winnipeg natives and one, Brock Sutherland, from nearby Brandon.

Tonight the Americans are at the Regina Pats, and on Saturday they will be at the Brandon Wheat Kings. That will be the closest the Winnipeg players will get to playing in front of friends and family this season. Winnipeg is 132 miles east of Brandon.

It’s not surprising Winnipeg is turning out quality players. The Winnipeg Minor Hockey Association has nearly 100 teams from peewee to bantam for boys and girls.

“They have some really good programs and quality coaches,” Tory said.

Schmidt, an overage defenseman who has spent his entire career with Tri-City, is joined by fellow Winnipeggers Brooks Macek, Adam Hughesman, Mason Wilgosh, Brendan Shinnimin, David Conrad, Chris Driedger and Neal Prokop, who is on the team’s injured list.

“It started with Schmidt and Mestery and kept on going,” Tory said. “We don’t have as many as we once did but we still have a good core.”

And with that group the Americans have won three straight U.S. Division titles, the 2010 Western Conference title and the 2008 Scotty Munro trophy for the best record in the league.

“I love Tri-City. It’s a great place to play,” Schmidt said. “It’s a great feeling to come to a team and have that kind of success. Once a few of the Winnipeg guys came it encouraged the rest that were drafted to come aboard. It puts out a good name for the city and shows that we might be getting overlooked.”

In addition to the Winnipeg players on the roster, Tory has a handful on his protected list.

“We have been successful in not only being able to draft them, but to also list them and give them opportunities to succeed,” Tory said of the Winnipeg contingent.

“They were all on successful teams and that helps. The family element of our team has helped them feel comfortable, and that’s how we’ve been able to build the great chemistry that we have.

“The players and their parents have become our best ambassadors. Players that come here in a trade wish they could have been here since the start of their careers. They realize this team is special and a great place to develop as a player and a person.”

The Americans were on a Winnipeg high during the 2008-09 season with 16 players on the opening day roster. Not all of them lasted the entire season, but it certainly made other teams take note when Tri-City won its second U.S. Division banner.

“There are a lot of variables in forming a good team — you have to have the players and the dynamic of that team has been good,” said Spokane GM Tim Speltz, whose Chiefs play the Americans 12 times per season. “I think maybe it’s a coincidence that quite a few have been from Winnipeg but they have been a great fit together.”

The Chiefs had their own Winnipeg star in Justin Falk, who now plays for the Minnesota Wild.

As of Thursday, there are 30 players from Winnipeg in the WHL. Tri-City has eight, Brandon five and Edmonton three. Eight of the 22 teams have no Winnipeg players.

Winnipeg has a rich hockey history that dates back to the late 1800s.

The Stanley Cup was won three times by the Winnipeg Victorias (1896, 1901, 1902). The Winnipeg Falcons won the gold medal at the 1920 Winter Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, and the Winnipeg Hockey Club won gold at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The Winnipeg Jets came along in 1972 and played in the World Hockey Association and the NHL until 1996 when they moved west and became the Phoenix Coyotes.

And while Winnipeg wasn’t a household name back in the late 1980s when the Americans arrived in Kennewick, the Jets had their eye on the Americans, taking Stu Barnes in the first round (fourth overall) in the 1989 NHL draft.

The Americans had a few Winnipeg players over the years before Tory started bringing them in by the busload, starting with 1992 bantam draft pick Mark Dutiaume.

Brent Huminuk followed, along with Steve Briere, Dorian Anneck, Curtis Huppe, Kyle Breen and Jesse Deckert.

“It’s nice to see guys from your hometown be successful and have good careers in the league,” Schmidt said.

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