Culture change key to Jr. Timbermen's turnaround

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The Nanaimo Jr.-A Timberman are more relevant today than they’ve ever been because of a culture change that began three years ago.

Frustration has been mounting in the Nanaimo lacrosse community for many years now. Losing season after losing season was wearing on the Jr. Timberman fan base and the staff. It took the courage of a few Timberman to stand up and speak out to get the ball rolling in the right direction.

Since their inaugural season in the BCJALL back in 2005, the Jr. Timberman have mostly been cellar-dwellers. Aside from five consecutive seasons from 2007-2011 in which the Jr. Timberman made the BCJALL playoffs (albeit with a losing record and losing in the first round each time,) the Vancouver Island franchise collected more than six wins in a year just once - they were 8-12-1 in 2014.

Before the 2017 BCJALL season began, following a 2-19 record the year prior, Dave Bremner was brought on to be both the team’s head coach and GM. This was a reunion in many ways for the new skipper as he had formally been an assistant coach with the team and is the parent of a former Jr. Timberman player, his son, Cody Bremner. Bremner’s hire also appears to be the beginning of what could be one of the greatest franchise turnarounds in BCJALL history.  

After their brief 2011 BCJALL playoff appearance, the Timberman struggled to find the talent, consistency and unified focus needed to make the post-season in this competitive league. The team was no longer the newcomer on the block by this point, yet it seemed, in many facets, that the team was still searching for its identity nearly a decade in. Bremner remembers that state of the organization when he took the reins of the Timberman a few seasons ago and what it took to build the team essentially from scratch.

“I came back to the team, and the team was in disarray,” said Bremner. “We started the whole process again from recruiting kids locally to drafting properly, to finally have a purpose behind our drafting. Once we found kids that wanted to play in Jr.-A and wanted to play in Nanaimo - although their record was terrible - and found a good group of parents that bought into our ideas, things began to change.”

Bremner and his staff knew that rebuilding this team was going to take time. Changing the mentality of the organization from within to convince young players that Nanaimo was a desirable destination was not easy. But, in his second year running the club, Bremner began to notice a difference in the players that were coming in and the way they were performing on the floor.

A sense of hope and optimism was slowly blossoming, even if their record wasn't always reflective of that trend. In 2018, the team struggled with a record of 3-18. However, Bremner saw promise in his young squad.

“Last year our record wasn’t indicative as to what we were capable of doing,” said Bremner. “Our record showed that we were 3-18, but our players and staff thought we were about an 8-13 team. We really started to see players believing in the system last year and in what we were doing.”

While every game over the last 15 seasons has been a challenge for the Jr. Timberman, no matchups have caused them more suffering than those against the powerhouse Coquitlam Jr. Adanacs. The Jr. Adanacs have dominated the BCJALL for over a decade. They have had the best record in the league every year since 2008 (except 2014 when the New Westminster Jr. Salmonbellies won) and have represented the BCJALL in the Minto Cup every season dating back to 2010 (except for 2013 when the Salmonbellies made it to the final).

From a head-to-head standpoint, the Jr. Adanacs have bullied the Jr. Timberman for years. In all competitions since they Jr. Timberman joined the BCJALL, the Jr. Adanacs have had a 1-41 record against Nanaimo’s team with the Timberman’s only win coming back in 2005. That win was followed by 39 straight losses, that was, until this season.

For any team to beat the Adanacs over the last ten years just once is a tremendous accomplishment, but the 2019 Jr. Timberman managed to pull off a mini-miracle of sorts by beating the league’s best team twice in the same weekend. Even though Coach Bremner has the utmost confidence in his boys, he understands that magnitude of what his team has just achieved, and furthermore, what it would mean to sweep the season series when they play again on Wednesday night.

“Let’s be honest, in Jr-A lacrosse, everyone is striving to be the Coquitlam Adanacs,” said Bremner. “They are the perennial champions in the league. So for our team to beat them once, but especially twice, was a huge stepping stone for us.”

“If we can win the third game (against Coquitlam), I’m going out to buy a lotto ticket.”

The wins versus the Adanacs give validation to Bremner and his staff’s project of rebuilding the organization. Only halfway through the 2019 season, the Jr. Timberman are two wins shy of setting their highest win total in their history.

They’ve been able to achieve such success be omitting an air of confidence and belief in themselves and the players they’re developing. Now that the team is starting to reap the benefits of the organization’s hard work over the last three years, Bremner is starting to feel a sense of pride in this creation, and that feeling is also trickling down over each level of management and staff, down to the players.

“I’d rather build something and be a part of building something, then going to a winning team,” said Bremner. “I think the kids are really buying into that idea and they have great pride in turning around this Timberman Jr. lacrosse program.

“We’ve changed from a club that just participates to a club that wants to do well.” 

Success and respect are earned, not given. It’s hard to think that anyone knows that better than the Jr. Timberman’s players and staff. Now that the team is on an upward trajectory, the sky’s the limits for this year’s team and the Jr. Timberman teams of the future.

It is rare to see a team make such a remarkable turnaround in one season, but we have seen it once before. In 1995, the Burnaby Jr. Lakers went 8-10-7 and then catapulted to the top of the BCJALL in 1996 with a record of 21-4. An incredible 13-game improvement. That one incredible year in 96’ jumpstarted a dynasty the BCJALL had never seen before. In all but two seasons from 1996-2007 (03’ and 05’), the Jr. Lakers had the best record in the league and went to 11 Minto Cups.

If the Jr. Timberman continue their winning ways, they will finish the season with 18 victories. A 15-game swing in the win column would be the largest jump in BCJALL history. And, if they were able to continue to win at that rate for as long as the Jr. Lakers did, this team would cement itself in Canadian box lacrosse history.

But that’s all speculation. What we do know, is that the Jr. Timberman have reached heights that even they couldn’t have imagined in 2019 and are cherishing every moment of this wild ride. The hope is that the Jr. Timberman can finish this year strong and continue to build on this year’s success for the foreseeable future. It’s a goal that may sound ambitious, but it’s one that Bremner is committed to, and one that he wholeheartedly believes can become a reality.

“We hopefully have a team here that we can build with for a few years; that was the purpose of everything that we’ve done,” said Bremner. “I don’t want us to be a one-year wonder and then all of a sudden we disappear again.”

Adam Levi