After four years as an assistant coach with the Rebels, Topher Plonka is taking his talents to Cochrane, Alberta to work with international players.
Plonka will be taking over the helm of the Midget team – players aged 15-17, at the SISEC Selects program. SISEC, which stands for the Swiss International Sports and Education Centre, is run out of Cochrane, which is northeast of Calgary. The program brings athletes from Europe and Asia to Canada and immerses the students into the local culture as they learn about sports and compete against nearby teams.
"What they do is take these European players who want to experience Canada and experience the Canadian game. Europeans are always good skaters but they need to know the foundation of the physicality and the different Canadian style. So they come over here and learn that and blend the two to make them a more dynamic player. The main goal is to learn that and also to learn English as a second language," said Plonka.
"I'm running the midget team. They have another team that plays in Europe. They're going to be expanding soon. I'm getting in at a really good time."
Plonka is excited about moving on to a growing program but is disappointed at leaving Castlegar and the Rebels behind.
Last year Plonka helped head coach Steve Junker lead the Rebels to the KIJHL finals after winning the regular season title and the Kootenay Conference crown. In addition to running the offence, Plonka was also the assistant general manager for the past two years.
Plonka is grateful for all he learned under Junker and Brent Heaven before him.
"I really learned a ton from those guys. From Brent Heaven I learned different things like just the way of the game; what buttons to push to get the most out of players. Brent was a really good motivator and Junker was unbelievable at strategy and the X's and O's of the game," said Plonka.
The departing coach is also very appreciate of the executive and other people in the Rebels' organization who he has worked with over the years.
He was also touched by the support of the community in Castlegar.
"I put a little thing up on Facebook that I was leaving and going onto this job and thanks to everyone who helped me along the way. The response was overwhelming," said Plonka, whose Facebook page was inundated with likes and comments.
Plonka was born and raised in Castlegar and played minor hockey in the local system. After graduating from Stanley Humphries Secondary, he moved on to Selkirk College to study and play for the Saints. He then looked stateside to continue his education, transferring to Lindenwood University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he earned his Bachelor's Degree in International Business in 2007 while playing varsity hockey.
After graduating from Lindenwood, Plonka returned to Castlegar and worked as an account executive at Mountain FM. From 2008 until April of this year, he juggled his job at the radio station with his coaching gig with the Rebels.
"I had two separate energies, now I can finally combine the two. It's a passion of mine. I love training myself; I love training the kids; I love to see growth. I know what it's like first-hand for kids to balance academics with varsity athletics," said Plonka.
In addition to coaching the SISEC Midget team, Plonka will also be involved in training the players off the ice.
"Our goal is to push them on to either higher junior hockey levels or college levels or get them to play pro back home. So we're giving them that experience. There's lots of ice time and I'll be helping to train them as well," said Plonka, adding that next year SISEC is planning to expand further and build a rink in Chestermere, which is a suburb east of Calgary.
"There building the rink right by the high school in Chestermere and they want me in touch with that process. So the first year, this year I signed a ten-month contract and what I'll be doing is training the kids and being head coach of the Midget team. The next year I'll be more administration," said Plonka. "If I do a good job, they want me to make it like a future career. They want me to be a big part of the organization and play a big role."