Last June, a new era of Grand Forks Border Bruins hockey began.
It started under the leadership of local physician Dr. Mark Szynkaruk, who assumed ownership of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League organization from the community-owned Grand Forks Border Bruins Association.
It was a tough year on the ice in the win column, with five, but there were many small victories. One was advancing two players to higher levels, and there is a good chance they will be announcing more in the weeks to come.
When asked what excites Dr. Mark, as he is called by Head Coach and GM Dave Hnatiuk, Szynkaruk said it’s where they are compared to a year ago when he officially took over the Border Bruins in mid-June.
“A year ago we had no billet coordinator, trainer, assistant coach, very few kids coming to camp, we had older, outdated amenities, and rooms and physical spaces,” he said. “We had no educational advisor, education program, and the list goes on and on. Now we have it all. We also have a community that is swelling up behind us.”
View this post on Instagram
“Dr. Mark is a well-respected man in Grand Forks. He is a very key piece of this community and helps in many ways,” said Hnatiuk. “The Border Bruins are an extension of Dr. Mark, first class, and professional.”
The work done to turn things around is very similar to that of the BCHL’s Trail Smoke Eaters when Rich Murphy and his wife purchased the club in November of 2016. Szynkaruk said he’s had people in the Kootenays compare what they are doing to Trail.
“I think we’ve certainly done that and taken it up another notch in terms of the standard at least in the KIJHL. We’re doing some pretty unprecedented stuff,” he said.
The Border Bruins have also seen some community sponsors return and Hnatiuk, who also coordinates the club’s sponsorship, asks for feedback and is told they are doing a good job.
“I’m starting to feel that people are warming up to us. Dr. Mark’s leadership and guidance is everything that we are doing and getting done properly,” said Hnatiuk. “I think now we’re starting to see that and getting the community’s trust back.”
Investing in Hnatiuk long-term
Szynkaruk showed a commitment to Hnatiuk by offering a long-term contract. Hnatiuk had four years remaining on his current deal, which has already been replaced by a 10-year extension.
“I’m proud of Dave’s commitment to the long haul,” Szynkaruk said. “What happened going off this season is we had a lot of wins off the ice in terms of our community engagement. I knew he was my guy and had the right attitude. The problem can often be that you don’t have the time you need to get the job done. You can have a really good coach, and maybe they only have a commitment to something that works for them that is two to five years max. Dave had shared his vision of where we could get this program if we had more time and I decided to make the financial commitment to make that possible.”
The deal also provides security for Hnatiuk’s family. Szynkaruk said Hnatiuk is looking for consistency, and people know his reputation from U Sports as well as his professional playing career overseas. Szynkaruk is confident it’s going to give the Border Bruins what they need in terms of parent and player confidence.
“He’s committed to me and my family,” says Hnatiuk. “To see what he is committing to this team, this town, this program, this is a great fit for me.
“Now I have 10 years, this will be my body of work or my portfolio I can share with someone,” he continued. “In the last 10 years, this is what we did in Grand Forks.”
The two have become friends and see the value in each other and what they bring through one another.
“I just love his vision and what we’re doing here and where else can you go to a KIJHL franchise and do this? We are working our tails off to get this all done,” said Hnatiuk. “Who else is building a new gym and a new room? Our dressing room is NHL quality.”
Nanaimo Clippers Partnership/Player Development
The Border Bruins partnered with the Clippers to host a Prospects Camp this past spring and it was the first time in Border Bruins’ history that there was a spring camp held in Grand Forks in April.
“We’re looking to continue that relationship. Hopefully this year we have a few guys that get offered to be affiliated and I really want to use this as a farm team system,” said Hnatiuk, adding that affiliating players isn’t exclusive to Nanaimo. “It does provide an opportunity for guys to be watched and seen.
“We want to be a place that is pumping players out,” he continued. “The KIJHL is about development.”
Hnatiuk believes his college and university hockey playing and coaching background is valuable to the players.
“We’re focused on moving guys on, we just need some time still to keep refining it,” said Hnatiuk. “I work my butt off for my players and want to see nothing but my players move on to play Junior A, college.”
Ideally, Hnatiuk wants players for one year. If some return for a second year, it’s to do more work to prepare for the college level. And the Border Bruins are making sure to do their part helping players meet their academic goals, as the organization covers student-athlete tuition as well as a book allowance.
The team also has an Education Advisor to help guide Border Bruins players through their academic planning.
Last season the Border Bruins’ Mindfulness Program was introduced for the players to attend once a week. They connect with councillors and talk about topics surrounding mental health.
The program is important as Hnatiuk talked about his playing days and how growing up “you never talked about what’s bugging you.”
“Mental health wasn’t a thing. You sucked it up and you kept going,” said Hnatiuk. “Now, that’s not the reality and mental health affects all of us. You have no problem saying you hurt your ankle or your elbow, but you have a tough time saying you’re feeling off?
“The stigma around mental health is changing and we want to be proactive and help change that,” he continued. “We’re aware that is a real issue and want to be able to provide our players with some tools, which is why our mindfulness course was created so they can cope with these issues when they come up.”
Dressing Room and Workout Facilities
The Border Bruins spent time renovating the dressing room in the Jack Goddard Memorial Arena and adding a top-of-the-line athletic training facility.
“We’re trying to rebrand this program and bring it out of the basement it has been in for years,” says Hnatiuk. “We’re doing it by providing amenities, avenues and opportunities for players to have right at their fingertips. I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere I have traveled.”
The Border Bruins hired Ken White, who made the Trail Smoke Eaters’ dressing room stalls, to build theirs. Players have access to trainers seven days a week and there is a pool in the parking lot with access to a hot tub and sauna. If players are injured off ice, there is full medical support. Szynkaruk is a general practitioner so there is instant access to a doctor with a special interest in pain, acute and chronic athlete injuries.
“If you want and expect your athletes to be at a certain level, you need to be able to provide them with the amenities to get to that level,” says Hnatiuk. “By adding a high-performance training centre right next to the dressing room, we can say now that our program is capable of providing that. Our spin bikes are the same that the Toronto Marlies and the Raptors use to warm up.”
All of the renovations have cost in excess of $200,000.
“You are getting some of the best development products available in the KIJHL,” said Szynkaruk.
Border Bruins’ Vision
Hnatiuk understands it’s going to take time to build and they are driven to keep making it a place to play.
“Dr. Mark has stepped up and this train is moving. It’s got momentum behind it,” said Hnatiuk. “We are here to change this program and make it a place kids want to come play. If you’re a guy looking to play hockey, we have everything that you need to develop.
“Talk to any of our players from last season, all 23 guys left here really happy and had a great experience,” he continued. “And that’s on five wins without the gym and the new locker room. There is going to be more hype this year, more people talking and more buzz.”
As the 2022-23 season gets underway, Dr. Szynkaruk is looking forward to seeing a return on his considerable investment, both on- and off-the-ice.
“I think people that are wise and astute are going to see it early, and they are going to say I want my child or as a player, I want to be a part of this now. My message out there for players would be, listen to what Dave has to say. If you want to be part of a wonderful community and get the best development and the best use of your time to make a go at this, look at the Border Bruins. Come to Grand Forks.”