The Portage Terriers head coach/GM already holds the record for most Manitoba Junior Hockey League championships (eight) and most ANAVET Cups (two), won the MJHL Coach of the Year four times and the Canadian Junior Hockey League Coach of the Year three times.
Spiller entered the current campaign just 25 wins away from setting the all-time MJHL record of most wins, currently held by Doug Stokes at 670.
“I really don’t have much to say until I get there (record),” said the ever-humble Spiller. “I think it’s a long way away. I don’t even know if we’ll get there this year.”
Most believe that the long-time Portage coach will indeed add that mark to his accomplishments this season.
“When you’re around a long time, those things seem to present themselves, I guess,” said the Portage la Prairie native, who started as an assistant to Don MacGillivray in 2001. “I do remember when (assistant coach) Paul (Harland) and I first started, I said, ‘Hopefully, we get off to a good start here and don’t get fired in two weeks.’
“It’s gone pretty good for us and we still enjoy coming to the rink, so that’s the good part of it all.”
Spiller, 60, credited the continuity of working with the likes of Harland and goaltending coach Jim Tkachyk as a key to his success since he took over from MacGillivray in 2006. He adds that equipment manager Ken Brooks and trainer/ power skating instructor Gisele Sutherland continued that progression after equipment manager/trainer Geno Romanow passed away. But there is just something about Spiller himself that keeps leading to success.
“He’s a guy who knows what it takes,” said former Terrier Tanner Waldvogel. “He knows how to get what he needs out of each individual, even if that individual doesn’t really realize what he’s doing. He’s got a gift for drawing the best out of his players, and finding guys that some other teams maybe don’t see the potential in. They come to Portage and he finds a way to make them work in the system and they have good Junior careers here.”
Former Terriers captain Eric DeLong won the 2009 Canadian Junior Hockey League Player of the Year under Spiller, who later hired him as an assistant coach in 2015 when Portage won what was then called the RBC Championship.
“He’s been able to get players to buy into the team,” DeLong said. “It’s not a culture where an individual gets to take control of things. If you’re there and part of the team and it’s not working out, then you’re probably not going to be around for too long. He’s been able to bring in good-character people and create a really good culture. Just creating a team-oriented culture has probably been the biggest thing.”
Spiller also credited long-time head scout Frank Harding, who just retired last year, for helping to find quality players.
“All good coaches are in the moment to win now,” said Terriers scout Oscar Marx. “Good GMs build for the future. Blake combines the two, but is not afraid to make tough decisions on the spot, if need be. So, he has a well-earned reputation for honesty and fair dealings.”
Terriers president David Koroscil, who signed Spiller to a three-year contract extension last year, admitted that he has worried about losing Spiller over the years.
“There have been coaching changes with the Western Hockey League Brandon Wheat Kings and the American Hockey League Manitoba Moose was another possibility,” he said.
“But he seems to be pretty loyal to us and seems to be well-rooted here, so that gives us a bit of comfort in that respect,” Koroscil said.
Blake and his supportive wife, Brenda, brought up their only son, A.J., in Portage.
“I’ve had a couple of places that kicked tires, but I haven’t really been the guy who’s put his name out there,” said Spiller. “I’m comfortable in Portage. I have a family and grandkids now, so to me, I haven’t really wanted to (go elsewhere). I mean, if the (NHL) Jets call tomorrow, I’d probably have to think about it, right?”
Spiller is already an MJHL legend.
“It’s pretty surreal that he’s going to become the winningest coach in the league,” said former Terriers captain Tanner Jago. “But when you look at his track record and the number of championships he’s won, there’s no surprise there.”
The team is working on how it will celebrate when Spiller does break the record.
“He’s one that doesn’t really like personal accolades, but the fans definitely appreciate what he’s done,” Koroscil said. “I know, from Blake’s perspective, he doesn’t want to be singled out. But, for what he’s accomplished, that’s an exceptional feat and the longevity with one team in the league as well. Being a hometown boy (coaching) the hometown team that you played with, I think is a pretty special thing for him.”
But Spiller is not taking the milestone for granted.
“Hopefully, I’m around long enough to get there,” he said. “Because you never know in hockey.”