The Grande Prairie Storm are not going to become a contender overnight.
That was the message from Kevin Higo, the team’s new bench boss and General Manager, when he was introduced at a media conference at the Crystal Centre Wednesday.
“I know the expectations are high and the expectations are high for me too. Are we going to turn things around 360 overnight? No, it’s going to be a process,” said Higo, the ‘04-’05 AJHL Coach of the Year with the Brooks Bandits.
“We’ve got to get better every where. When you don’t make the playoffs and don’t win, especially in a place like this, you’ve got to improve. So slowly, but surely, I have been making contact with some of the returning guys – they’re very aware that there are going to be changes and not everybody is going to return.”
With the Storm missing the playoffs the past season and Higo becoming the third head coach in less than a year, he says he understands the pressure and challenges that lay ahead.
Higo, who was born and raised in Lethbridge, was signed to a three-year contract on May 13 by the Storm and brings a wealth of AJHL coaching experience with him.
He was the assistant coach of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons when they won the Royal Bank Cup with Fran Gow at the helm in 2000. When Gow left that year to come coach the Storm, Higo than took over as GM until ’03.
From 2004-2008, Higo also coached the Brooks Bandits and also spent time with the Crowsnest Pass Timberwolves, who eventually relocated to Okotoks.
After his time in the AJHL, Higo was an assistant coach with the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors (2008-2010) and then with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (2010-2012). In 2012-2013, he was also the Director of Hockey at Rothesay Netherwood School, a private boarding school in New Brunswick.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in the AJHL, but I’m excited to be back. This, at one point in time, was a real hard place to play, a place that you didn’t want to play against, but you wanted to play for, and that’s part of the objective this year is to get that back,” said Higo, adding he has added several contacts since leaving the AJHL.
“We plan on getting back and being hard to play against, play an aggressive game, a structured game and a place that is no means to an end for the guys. We want to bring guys here that are going to move on – whether that’s moving on to the Western Hockey League, college in Canada or the U.S and it might be pro for some guys as well.”
Higo has been recruiting since being hired and says it’s been positive, citing a crop of recruits will be announced in the coming days.
“Recruiting is going pretty well, good conversations with the returning guys, good conversations with the new guys coming in – that’s something that we’re trying to sell for sure… that Storm style of hockey,” Higo said, adding he’s also had conversations with recruits and Storm Head Scout Gareth Barley.
“I really think this is as close to a top-end hockey franchise that you can get in the Canadian Junior Hockey League.”
He says the team is prepared to announce a few recruits in the coming weeks.
In terms of local talent, he says he also expects a few local players to be in a Storm uniform next season, noting he’s already spoken to a few local players.
“I’ve always been partial to having some local guys. When we had success in Fort McMurray, we always had three or four guys from Fort Mac. When I was in Brooks, we always had a couple of guys. This is the first time ever I’ve been in a junior A franchise where we’ve had a AAA team, a 15-year-old team, so I can’t see why there wouldn’t be,” he said.
“We want to be as involved as possible with the minor hockey programs and hopefully you will see the Storm out at minor hockey practices and functions as much as possible.”
Higo says he wants the team to be known as a difficult team to play, not only by being physical and the occasional fight, but also with puck control at both ends of the ice.
“We want teams after our games to say, ‘geez that was a hard team to play.’ That’s going to be the major identity of our group,” he said, adding that the team’s goals and objectives will always be changing.
The self-described demanding coach, who holds players accountable, says there will be an onus on players to come to the rink ready every day.
“It’s not a job, but it’s going to be treated like a job. The guys will have to punch in, whether it be in the gym, in the classroom, or in practice or games. They’re going to be challenged on a regular basis. I expect them to work hard, but with that being said, I expect myself being the hardest working guy,” said Higo.