Saturday, May 18, 2024

‘It starts from the top’: Victoria Royals VP of Hockey Operations speaks on off-season success

Share

Victoria Royals coverage presented by:

If you’re looking for game day eats, Domino’s has you covered! Whether it’s pre-game fuel or post-game celebrations, you can easily order online today and score 25% off on delicious pizza, wings, and more. Enjoy the game with Domino’s!


The Victoria Royals enter the 2024 off-season having taken a modest step forward, integrating quality young talent into the roster while also making the playoffs for the first time since 2019.

It’s an exciting time for Royals fans, who have been patiently waiting for their team to start trending in a positive direction.

It’s even more exciting for Royals Vice President of Hockey Operations Joey Poljanowski, whom Victoria Buzz spoke with last week. He gets his first full summer to continue building the organization, after being hired at the end of last July. Given the Royals offseason started in late March last season, that’s joining the party a bit later than preferred.

“It’s everything,” Poljanowski said, regarding having the entire summer.

“You’re coming in halfway through the summer last year, and a lot of different strategies have been implemented and a lot of different plans are already in their later phases.”

It’s an interesting time for any executive to join a club, given the WHL, US, and Import Drafts all take place in early May. Those selections were made. The roster was nearly set.

“Really, it was about preparing for training camp as quickly as possible.”

With a “transition year” under his belt and an entire hockey season to evaluate the organization, Poljanowski is set for his first full summer behind the helm. He wasted no time taking action, promoting Associate Manager Jake Heisinger to General Manager.

“It was important to make sure we brought [someone in] to enhance our overall hockey operations department,” Poljanowski said, referring to bringing Heisinger on last July.

“He did a tremendous job this year and was instrumental in a lot of decisions that led to what we accomplished this season, which was retooling our draft cupboard while still having a competitive team and helping change our culture.”

For Poljanowski, culture improvements and changes take place at the top of the organization and trickle down to every off-ice staff member, on ice coach or performance staff, and of course the players.

Heisinger is the man to continue that cultural growth, receiving glowing reviews for his day-to-day work habits and process.

“It’s his communication skills, leadership, organization, and his vision,” Poljanowski said. “He has an idea of how to build an elite WHL franchise and he knows how to do it different ways.”

“He did a great job and is more than deserving of the promotion to take on the general manager role.”

With two young studs to build around in centerman Cole Reschny and defenseman Keaton Verhoeff, the Royals will stroll into the WHL Bantam Draft with a boatload of draft picks, owning two first round picks, two second round picks, a third, and two fourths.

The Victoria Royals’ four year draft grid.

Those first and second round picks in particular are huge opportunities to continue building the franchise, where Heisinger will carry the load.

“This is Jake’s bread and butter coming up.”

Between the WHL Bantam Draft, the US Prospects Draft and the Import Draft, management finally has a chance to put their stamp on the organization through the draft, which appears to be the preferred method of roster building.

With Heisinger taking further charge of building the roster and ready to lead the draft table, Poljanowski can continue working on and improving the organization throughout – slow and steady.

And he’s confident he has the correct people steering the ship.

The right people in the right places

Paramount to any successful organization is, of course, the people who run it. While fans focus on the 20 players on the ice every game, there are dozens of people working behind the scenes to execute everything from scouting, to in-game fan experiences, to scheduling travel and hospitality, to building out community and hockey camp programs.

For the Royals to improve and elevate to a consistent playoff performer – and more importantly – contender, it isn’t just about finding good hockey players. You need to have all departments of the franchise running with one goal in mind: championships.

“It starts from the top down,” Poljanowski said. “You want to bring in good people that have that work ethic and passion for the game… and the knowledge of what it takes to develop people and players.”

That’s especially true in the WHL, where there is no option of handing out multi-million dollar contracts to plug a roster hole. The only way to improve is to manage your assets intelligently, have success in the WHL Bantam Draft, and maximize the development you can get out of every player that comes through the organization.

Obviously, a well-financed operation helps in recruiting front office and staff roles, but ultimately, it’s the people in charge that have to foster and create successful standards and culture.

You need to have high character people propelling the franchise forward.

Which was one of the main things Poljanowski believes the Royals accomplished this year. After hiring James Patrick to be head coach last November, he believes in the people the Royals have in place. And not just who – but where they’ve come from and the variety of experiences and perspectives they can bring to the table.

“Jake with his Winnipeg (Ice) ties, Jeep (James Patrick) with Buffalo, Dallas (as an assistant coach) and his NHL career, and then for myself, with London (Knights), Hockey Canada, and Arizona (Coyotes), you see what other teams have done and what success has been.”

It’s those two – Heisinger and Patrick – along with assistant coach Morgan Klimchuk that fuels Poljanowski’s optimism for the years ahead.

That’s the key trio to propel the hockey operations side forward.

“When you’re talking about the strength of the organization, it’s definitely in our hockey operations leadership group with those three in particular.”

Heisinger will build the roster, Patrick will lead the squad, and Klimchuk will support Patrick in connecting with the players and making sure they feel heard. And of course, that they’re improving.

Klimchuk himself is in his second year with the team as an assistant coach, moving behind the bench after playing his final season as an assistant captain of the AHL’s Belleville Senators in 2019-20.

He was the 5th overall pick by the Regina Pats in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, and starred in four seasons with the Pats before being traded to Brandon to finish his WHL career. He had three 30 goal seasons in the WHL before being selected in the 1st round, 28th overall by the Calgary Flames in 2013. Eventually, he would suit up for the Flames in his professional career, earning his single NHL appearance during the 2017-18 season. Otherwise, he carved out a solid AHL career, scoring 62 goals and 133 points over 6 seasons.

“Not only was [Klimchuk] a first round NHL pick, but a first round Bantam Draft pick too,” Poljanowski said. “He’s someone who’s been through it too and has that connection with the modern day athlete.”

Klimchuk brings valuable experience to a group of teenagers, having dealt with the expectations of being a top WHL pick. He’s also experienced both the challenges and promise of being a first round NHL draft pick, and knows what it takes.

He’s young for a coach at 29-years-old, a person in the organization the players should feel comfortable voicing their struggles and challenges to over a long season.

“He’s kind of that player’s coach, another person who has so much experience at a young age and has a long runway as a coach in hockey, too.”

With Patrick, the resumé is obvious. He enjoyed a 21-year, 1280 game NHL career, captained a Canadian World Junior team to a gold medal, played in the 1984 Olympic Games, and won the 1987 Canada Cup. You don’t accomplish that without strong daily habits and processes.

“His NHL presence, his daily attitude, his vision, and his work ethic,” Poljanowski said. “He has a demand for [high standards] and he’s continuing to push our guys constantly.” 

“We believe we have one of the best coaches in the Western Hockey League.”

Also invaluable is the combination of his coaching resume. He was an assistant in Dallas and Buffalo over 11 seasons, playing the role of the player’s coach before taking over for the Kootenay/Winnipeg Ice franchise right as they began a rebuild. Patrick got to give his head coaching philosophies a go and found success, helping lead that team to last year’s WHL finals before ultimately falling to Seattle.

With today’s generation of athlete, it’s critical to strike a balance between being demanding, yet communicative.

“His communication, you know, he’s a pro. He’s a pro through and through. He’s coached elite players… and he always has that NHL experience to draw back on.”

“Having him, it’s everything for us.”

Given that Patrick was hired in early November with the season already under way, and both Poljanowski and Heisinger came at the end of last July, this summer and upcoming season will be the first where the “new” management has a chance to truly operate as a trio.

For Poljanowski, that’s working with his staff on the summer hockey camp programs the Royals run, while also focusing on planning community and outreach programs. Heisinger will run this management’s first ever draft, and will be busy finalizing draft lists for the upcoming WHL Draft. There’s also the US Prospects draft and the Import Draft – the latter which Poljanowski will also work closely on.

For Patrick, it’s his chance to run a training camp and have the players dialed into his philosophies from day one, while also running High-Performance and youth camps alongside Klimchuk and some of the other development staff throughout the summer.

Then this management and coaching group will be able to dive head first into the 2024-25 season with everyone getting a full summer of preparation.

Building community programs and a sustainable franchise

With their first season under their belt and many key hiring decisions made, Poljanowski will continue working on two key pillars for the organization: building a sustainably successful franchise with a strong community footprint.

“What we want to do and what we came here to do is build a sustainable franchise,” Poljanowski said. “We don’t want to go through the ups and the downs of, you know, battling for first overall picks and then building around one draft and going for a run.”

“Then it’s three good years but you’re in the gutter after for another four.”

So far he and Heisinger have backed up those ideals, pushing aggressively to acquire quality draft capital over the next few years while being reluctant to trade high picks. That’s highlighted by their trade record and the draft picks they were willing to ship out this season: a 5th rounder in 2024 to get Pasternak, a 2026 5th to get Laventure, and both 6th (2025) and 9th (2027) round selections to get Brinson.

You’ll notice none of those prices include picks in the first four rounds.

And of course to bolster the draft cupboard, they brought in Ben Riche, two 1st round picks, as well as 2nd, 3rd, and 5th round picks in the Kalem Parker blockbuster in October.

A summary of October’s blockbuster trade. (whl.ca)

Coming from the London Knights organization – one of the model franchises around the entire CHL – Poljanowski has seen what’s possible. The Knights have made the OHL playoffs 21 years in a row, and have been to the finals six times over that span, winning four of them. Somehow, they’ve managed to avoid the classic up-and-down junior hockey cycle.

“London is obviously where I’m from and the organization that I grew up with,” he said, having spent four seasons there as the Manager of Hockey Operations. “Every single year the team was competitive, and then every few years they decide to really go for it.”

“We want to have a competitive team where we’re always in the picture.”

Whether they can execute that goal or not will be determined in the coming years, but Poljanowski’s first full summer at the helm also means he and his staff can continue developing and implementing their offseason community plans and programs.

“One thing that we really wanted to do was redevelop our development plan and our community planning,” Poljanowski said. “We’re a community team, we have really passionate and fantastic fans, and we want to make sure that we’re giving back to them and developing the community programs.”

The Royals in-game fan experience evolved last year, with some live music outside of Gate 1 for select games last season, an in-house DJ, and the Fan Zone in section 106. 

There’s also tons of ways to impact the community and fans outside of the arena, too.

Through helping with learn to skate programs, contributing to HEROS Hockey and supporting the Moose Hide Campaign, while also doing school and hospital visits, the Royals have a ton of ways to contribute to the city. Hockey is a language many Canadians speak, and can create moments young kids never forget – a quick interaction with a Royal, being encouraged by a player or staff member at a camp, or just from plain ol’ fashioned autograph signings and banter. 

Royals players have the opportunity to be accessible, local role models for kids in the area.

“You can never be too good of a community member,” Poljanowski said. “As part of our offseason it’s really targeting how we want to continue to be strong community members and increasing our footprint here.”

Part of the challenge of coming halfway through the summer is executing initiatives like these, but they were able to get moving on a few of them. The Royals Hockey Help fund, for example, was added late in the season in February. It’s an initiative that helps minor hockey programs struggling for funding to get the support they need and keep kids playing hockey.

The Royals are also launching an inaugural series of High-Performance Camps this summer to help nurture local players with ambition in the sport.

“Some of these things launched late in the season, but we wanted to launch these types of initiatives to continue to grow over the offseason and really implement for next year,” Poljanowski said.

It’s all done with the aim of providing entertaining hockey, a place for people to gather, and impacting the town at a local level.

Oh, and getting the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre back to being the “Barn on Blanshard”.

“What I learned in the nine months of being here is what a special group of fans we have here in Victoria. We want to make sure we continue to give back to the community and show our appreciation to the fans for coming out during the ‘dark days’, if you will.”

“Our goal from ownership and what we want to be doing is creating that culture and environment that brings people together. At the end of the day that’s what hockey’s about, bringing people together.”

“And giving them something to cheer for and having a team that they’re proud of.”

What’s next for the Victoria Royals this summer

Stay tuned for our conversation with recently promoted GM Jake Heisinger, as he prepares for the upcoming WHL Bantam Draft, US Prospects Draft, and Import Drafts happening in early May.

The Royals have two first round selections in the WHL Bantam Draft, 8th and 18th overall.

Jeremy Weeres
Jeremy Weeres
Victoria Royals and hockey writer at Victoria Buzz

Read more

Latest Stories