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WHL experience just what the doctor ordered

(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun)

Stephane Lenoski has an utterly unique viewpoint on how the Western Hockey League shaped him.

Now 34, the former Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman is a family doctor, sports medicine physician and exercise physiologist in his hometown of Winnipeg. He gives the Brandon coaching staff of Kelly McCrimmon and Dwayne Gwylwoychuk and his billets a lot of credit for his achievements.

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Stephane Lenoski breaks the shaft of his stick while recording a 100 km/h shot in the hardest-shot event at the Brandon Wheat Kings’ annual skills competition at the Keystone Centre on Jan. 25, 2004.
BRANDON SUN FILES

“It’s kind of like an internship,” Lenoski said of being a WHL player. “You see it at that age as hockey development but it’s really an internship of personal growth. It really teaches you all the leadership qualities — hard work, discipline, working with others, managing stress, believing in yourself, not trying to step over people and just thinking about yourself but thinking about others, communication — all the skills that you have to develop in the professional world. As a hockey player, you learn that very early on.”

It’s an experience he nearly missed entirely.

Lenoski was born and raised in Winnipeg, first lacing up skates around age five at the nearby Windsor Community Centre in St. Vital. He was soon skating with a group of youngsters that included Nigel Dawes, Jonathan Toews and a bunch of others who played at the game’s highest levels.

“If you were any kind of player, you went outdoor skating every day,” Lenoski said. “It was a bunch of guys who would play in the WHL but a lot of guys would be there.”

His mother Brigitte immigrated from France, while father Daniel was the son of Polish and Ukrainian immigrants.

His dad, an English professor at the University of Manitoba, played for the St. James Canadians in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and his grandfather also played on a recreational basis.

Stephane, however, was the only hockey player among his three siblings and half-siblings to take the game seriously.

He began playing organized hockey around age six in Southdale, with his father coaching. On the weekends, Lenoski’s father would bring his papers to the outdoor rink to grade while his son skated with his buddies.

“Everything that has happened in my life has been guided by my parents, whether it was hockey or school,” Lenoski said. “They taught me the value of hard work, that somebody else might be more talented or smarter than you are but you have to outwork them. That was the philosophy in our house.”

Lenoski said he was a good player growing up, but working hard in the summers by age 13 was the difference that allowed him to advance higher than he imagined he could.

“They enabled that because they gave me every opportunity and paid for the training and kind of pushed me in that direction,” Lenoski said. “It’s hard to describe but my parents wanted me to have a good life, and they taught me that if you want to good life, you have to work for it, it’s not just going to happen.”

He played bantam hockey with the Warriors, but went unselected in the 2001 WHL bantam draft, and joined the Winnipeg Sharks for under-18 at age 16.

Lenoski was scouted by the Portage Terriers, who were then coached by current Wheat Kings assistant Don MacGillivray. With no WHL offers coming his way, he attended Portage’s camp in 2003.

“I was going to make the team,” Lenoski said. “I kind of expected that, but Kelly McCrimmon was scouting — the Portage Terriers camp was week or two before Wheat Kings camp — so he was there. His son (Mickey) was actually trying out. He recruited me.”

Lenoski’s parents had already met with the St. Cloud State coach, who was attempting to recruit Stephane, and the family was interested in American college hockey. He attended Brandon’s camp and was driving back to Winnipeg with his parents when McCrimmon called and asked them to return.

“The way to convince us was the WHL scholarship,” Lenoski said. “My dad was a university professor so a (Canadian Interuniversity Sport, now U Sports) person and he loved the Canadian university system and believed in it, so he was a huge fan of that. That’s probably the main reason I played for the Wheat Kings to be honest. That was very, very important to our family that university was covered.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that Lenoski knew all about the Wheat Kings from their regular season and playoff visits to Winnipeg over the years.

“It was always my dream to play for the Wheat Kings growing up,” Lenoski said. “We used to go to the old Winnipeg Arena and I remember I was 14 and watched Reagan Leslie, and he was a D-man, and a very good defenceman. He was about five-(foot)-six and I was a smaller defenceman. I bloomed and grew out later but I looked up to him as a 14-year-old watching the Wheat Kings at Winnipeg Arena.”

In 59 games in his rookie season in 2003-04 with Brandon, Lenoski had seven assists and 25 penalty minutes.

He said the team was a huge help as he adjusted to living away from home.

“You’re so busy and so excited to play hockey,” Lenoski said. “It is a transition for sure but the Wheat Kings had such good support systems and the infrastructure in place to be able to help you.”

He said the team’s academic advisor was important, noting the transition to a new school, Crocus Plains, without teammates was a bit daunting. Lenoski had pushed himself earlier in high school in case he took a step forward in hockey and had just one class in Grade 12.

Lenoski added his billets — in his 17-year-old season they were Joan and Don Hodgson and their daughter Caroline, and in his 18- and 19-year-old seasons Derek and Paula Thiessen and their children Carter, (current Wheat Kings defenceman) Rylan and daughter McKenna — were also a tremendous help.

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Dr. Stephane Lenoski credits the Brandon Wheat Kings for teaching him lessons that continue to pay off for him.
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He was lucky in another way as well.

“Brandon is close to Winnipeg so I was close to home,” Lenoski said. “I think that’s a huge advantage. It never felt like I left home.”

He said in three seasons in Brandon, his parents missed just one game, providing him with an extra level of support and the ability to make a quick trip home on holidays.

There was also a transition on the ice, however.

In Grade 11, Lenoski had sprouted up four inches to around six-foot and he gained 25 pounds to about 185. Still, he had to work hard to contain the size, speed, skill and strength of forwards in the WHL.

“You’re defending top-line forwards who are much bigger than you, which makes it difficult,” Lenoski said. “But when you come into the league, the older guys play against each other and the younger third and fourth lines and prospects play against each other so you kind of match lines that way. But it does help to have NHL draft picks on your team who you practise against every day.”

The Wheat Kings made the playoffs in his rookie season after going 28-32-9-3, falling to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

They took a massive step forward a year later, posting a 45-21-5-1 record and winning the conference title before losing to the Kelowna Rockets in the final.

“We had a 15-game winning streak at one point … so we were on quite a roll,” Lenoski said. “We were a good team but I think at some point, probably halfway through the season, it wasn’t OK to lose anymore. We started believing in ourselves so much that we believed we could win every game, and once you get that winner’s mentality, it isn’t OK to win 4-3. If you can beat them 9-2, you’re going to beat them 9-2. You weren’t going to take your foot off the gas.”

Lenoski suggested it’s a rare phenomenon for a team to have that mindset, and the only time he ever experienced it.

He said it certainly didn’t hurt that they had talent like league scoring leaders Eric Fehr and Ryan Stone, goaltender Tyler Plante and Lenoski’s defensive partner Steven Later. It was also the National Hockey League’s lockout year, so there was incredible talent around the WHL.

His pairing with Later, another Winnipegger, proved to be an inspired combination of abilities. The six-foot-four Later was a rugged and skilled offensive defenceman, while Lenoski prided himself on his defensive play and making a good first pass.

“We were the top pairing and every night we were paired against (Ryan) Getzlaf (of the Calgary Hitmen) or Dawes (of the Kootenay Ice) or (Dustin) Boyd (of the Moose Jaw Warriors) or (Troy) Brouwer (of Moose Jaw) or whoever it might be, and your job is to shut them down,” Lenoski said. “Especially with all these stars, that was really exciting for me because I could kind of compare myself to them and it gave me confidence that I could shut them down.”

He responded with the third best plus-minus on the team, plus-22, despite playing in the era prior to the elimination of clutch-and-grab hockey that may have benefited his game. He had a goal and 17 assists in 71 games with 43 penalty minutes.

At the same time, he and Mike Nichol were urged to take university classes by Wheat Kings owner Kelly McCrimmon. Nichol also later became a doctor.

“It was a good way to keep me grounded and keep my brain going on the academic side of things,” Lenoski said. “It was encouraged and supported by Kelly McCrimmon, which I think is huge. To have the kind of leader who supports that is very important, and it’s crucial that is supported because most of us won’t play in the NHL.”

He also took a course or two every summer when he went home.

It’s certainly an academic family. His father has a PhD and his mother and his sister both hold Master’s degrees.

“It was never negotiable,” Lenoski said with a chuckle. “You either did well in school or you were not going to play hockey. If I had messed up in my academic life, I wouldn’t have played for the Wheat Kings.”

The team fell back in his 19-year-old season in 2005-06, with a record of 30-32-6-4 after the graduation of a number of top players. Lenoski had four goals, 13 assists and 63 penalty minutes in 64 games as the team fell in the first round of the playoffs to Moose Jaw.

They had nine 19-year-olds skate for the club that season, creating a logjam for the 2006-07 season for the three overage spots.

“I enjoyed my time so much and I was kind of living in the moment,” Lenoski said. “When you look back now, you realize things that you might not have when you were playing. I was aware I might not be coming back as a 20-year-old but I was confident in myself that I would. I believed I could earn one of those spots.”

It ultimately didn’t happen. McCrimmon dealt him to the expansion Chilliwack Bruins, who five seasons later became the Victoria Royals.

“I had voiced my desire to be on the power play and have a more offensive role, and that just wasn’t going to be able to happen with the personnel that was there,” Lenoski said of Brandon. “Kelly was aware of that and said this will give you an opportunity to be a 20-year-old on an expansion team where you’re going to be a leader and have tons of ice time.”

All of that came true with the Bruins. Lenoski was one of the few veterans on the club, and in 35 games had four goals and 16 assists, eclipsing any of his Brandon point totals in half a season.

“As hard as it was to leave Brandon, going to Chilliwack was a wonderful thing for me,” Lenoski said. “It was a really cool experience to be part of an expansion team.”

Just after the Christmas break, the Spokane Chiefs acquired Lenoski for picks.

In 36 games in Spokane, he added a goal and 17 assists, giving him career highs with five goals and 33 assists in 71 games between the two clubs.

After Spokane got knocked off by Everett in the Western Conference quarterfinals, Lenoski’s junior career was over, so he headed home to attend the University of Manitoba. With all of the university courses he took during his WHL tenure, he arrived on campus with a year under his belt already.

He said the WHL scholarship was an incredible advantage. The fact that it paid for his tuition and books was one thing, but it also took a load off his mind and his future debt load if he didn’t have it.

“I didn’t have to worry about getting a part-time job to pay my bills,” Lenoski said. “I just have to go to school and that will pay my bills.”

Lenoski played three seasons with the Bisons, being named a Canada West second-team all-star in his final year. He said it became increasingly more difficult to balance his studies and athletics, because as a science student, he had four classes plus a three-hour weekly lab with each.

He would be at school by 8 a.m., practise each evening from 5 to 7, get home at 8 and study until midnight, knowing that every second weekend the hockey team would travel.

He said the leadership skills he learned in Brandon were a huge help.

“My years with the Bisons really allowed me to put those to use,” Lenoski said.

In addition to playing with the U of M, Lenoski also suited up for Canada in China at the Harbin Winter Universiade in 2009.

After his third year at the University of Manitoba, Lenoski left his competitive hockey career behind to concentrate on his studies.

In 2013, he had to pick his specialty, and his dream was sports medicine. The path into the field goes through family medicine, so he spent two years in a residency.

After he finished that, he landed a rare fellowship spot for sports medicine, and did that for one year, graduating in 2017 after a decade in university in Winnipeg.

He also earned the highest kinesiology degree you can get without doing a Masters or PhD, which helps him to teach people how to be active while taking into consideration their physical impairments such as arthritis or Parkinson’s disease.

In his current role as the first practising exercise physiologist, family doctor and sports medicine physician in Canada, he deals with musculoskeletal medicine. One of his jobs is helping his older patients stay active.

The Legacy Sport Clinic is a private facility — it treats the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Valour FC, local U Sports athletes and many of the city’s top athletes — so they haven’t had to deal with COVID-19 in quite the same way that hospitals have, but they have had to try to limit the number of people in the clinic by helping some of their patients by phone.

“We’re still open … but we might just be calling half the people instead of seeing them all, and then trying to triage the people who need to be seen,” Lenoski said, adding they don’t want their patients heading to emergency rooms instead. “We’re trying to decrease the stress on the system by continuing to care for our patients but doing it in a smart way.”

The staff is also wearing protective gear in the clinic.

In addition, Lenoski is the chair of the Doctors Manitoba Physician Health & Wellness Committee, which lends support to the province’s doctors.

His personal life hasn’t lagged behind.

His wife Jocelyn is a former U Sports hockey player with the Lethbridge Pronghorns and currently an ICU nurse. The couple is expecting their first child in July.

Lenoski said with a laugh that many of his blessings came because of attending that camp in Portage and eventually ending up in Brandon.

“I didn’t even want to go to Portage Terriers camp when I was 17 and my mom forced me,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave home. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was kind of foreign to me. You kind of take a chance and then all these good things happen.”

While he’s thankful for all his parents and the Wheat Kings taught him, one lesson ultimately had to be distilled from his own experiences. It proved to be one of the most important.

“If you believe in yourself, you believe that you can do anything because it’s not easy to excel in hockey and play at that level,” Lenoski said. “If you can do it in hockey, you can do it in any other part of your life, you just have to put in the same work.”

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