If senior hockey in the province is cyclical, then there is no arguing that the Tiger Hills Hockey League is on the upswing right now.
With 14 teams stretching from Swan Lake to Melita, the league is as competitive as it’s been in two decades.
"For five or six dollars, you can come and watch a guy that played in the NHL and there’s a bunch of guys that have played professionally or in junior leagues," Souris Elks head coach Ken Falloon said.
A quick look at the top 10 scorers in the league this year backs up Falloon’s statement.
Shane Jury, who played four seasons with the Neepawa Natives of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, led the league in points in the regular season with 61, racking up 25 goals and 36 assists in 18 games. Mark Agnew and Bryan White tied for second with 51 points and both played elite level hockey. Agnew played four years with Quinnipiac University in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, while White suited up for his hometown Natives in the MJHL, leading the league in goals in 2001.
In all, the top 10 THHL scorers feature two former professional hockey players, one major junior player, two collegiate players and five Junior A players. At the head of the class is Jonathan Filewich, who played five games with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007-08 and spent six seasons in the pro ranks, largely in the AHL and in Europe.
"This league is very competitive," Filewich said. "There are a lot of guys that have played professional hockey and junior hockey in the league and sometimes you just need a chance when you’re younger. I had a lot of chances and for one reason or another I was able to climb the ladder."
Filewich, a third round selection (70th overall) in the 2003 NHL draft, is orignally from Sherwood Park, Alta. During his four-year career with the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, Filewich played alongside Souris native Chris Falloon. It’s also during that time that he met Chris’s sister Lindsay, who is now his wife and a big reason why he chose to call Souris home.
Now in his second season removed from pro hockey, Filewich is pursuing a degree in education at Brandon University.
"I had different aspirations and I moved on," Filewich said about retiring from the pro ranks after the 2010-11 season when he played for the Zagreb Medvescak in the Kontinental Hockey League.
While he took last year off from hockey to focus on school, this year Filewich chose to suit up for his hometown Elks.
"We’ve got a good mix," said the 6-foot-2, 205-pound forward. "It’s been great to play with this group and the best part is being in the room with the guys because we have a lot of fun."
Russia’s loss has been the Elks’ gain as Filewich, along with a host of other high-end players, led Souris to a 17-0-2 record during the regular season and a three-game sweep of the Wawanesa Jets in the second round of the playoffs.
He’s also happy to finally be situated in one spot and enjoy the little things that many take for granted. Filewich said for the first time in a decade he’s been able to spend time with family and friends at Christmas, take part in birthday parties and hang out with the guys and watch Hockey Night in Canada on a Saturday night.
"There are a lot of little things that you miss," he said. "Being a professional hockey player is a very tough job, especially if you’re in the lower tiers. You really don’t get paid that much for the abuse your body takes. The NHL is great, that’s a different story, that’s the life right there."
The 28-year-old’s biggest accolade might have come in the American Hockey League when he was the fastest skater during the skills competition at the 2007 all-star game.
"It was a surprise and it is great to have and I’m very proud of that moment, but never in a million years did I think I’d do that," Filewich said.
Ultimately, injuries slowed down the gritty winger, and they’ve also forced him to alter his game in the THHL. Known before as a guy who would mix it up, Filewich now finds room on the outside and uses his speed to get to scoring areas. While his style of play has changed, there’s still nowhere else he’d rather be than on the ice.
"These guys want to win and want to play and it makes it fun because that competitiveness is what I miss," he said. "I just love being out there."