COLUMN: The long, cold road back to success

After two years at the bottom of the BC Hockey League standings, the Surrey Eagles may finally – hopefully – be turning a corner.

After nearly 15 years as a sports reporter, I won’t fathom a guess as to how many hockey games I’ve watched.

And for my own sanity, I’m better off not trying to tally up all the hours I’ve spent in cold arenas, either – from Kamloops to Fort St. John to Peace River to South Surrey.

But what I do remember instead are individual moments.

Like the time I stood, leaning against a wall while waiting for a player to come out of the dressing room, only to realize the hallway was so cold that my jacket had become frozen to the building, like the tongue of a child who dares lick a frosty lamp post.

Or when – while working for my university newspaper – a member of the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers told me he didn’t worry about getting an education because he was going to have a long, successful professional hockey career. (Spoiler alert: he didn’t.)

There have been angry managers who I’ve seen kick over garbage cans; goaltenders who’ve shot pucks at me post-game; wonderful parents who’ve bought me coffee and less-than-wonderful ones who’ve threatened to have me fired. (Spoiler alert: they haven’t… yet).

And there was one coach who, hours after his team’s game had ended, helped me dig my car out of a snowbank after I’d spun out in an empty arena parking lot.

All of which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the Surrey Eagles – a BC Hockey League team with a long, storied history which itself is trying to come in from the cold.

If you’ve been following along, the team has struggled mightily since 2014, winning just 16 games in two seasons. The organization has had its fair share of challenges, both on and off the ice – many of them detailed last spring by team president Chuck Westgard in an interview with PAN – but now, with a new season underway, there is hope, as there is for every team this time of year.

And though the team’s fate this season doesn’t affect me personally, I am hopeful that maybe they’ve started on a journey back to respectability.

Sure, the sample size is small – just one game, which they lost 8-7 – but when you’ve been around the game long enough, you can start to get a sense for when a team might be turning a corner, for better or worse.

Yes, they gave up eight goals in their home-opener, but scoring seven themselves? Last year, it might’ve taken the team two weeks to reach that mark.

Baby steps.

I hope for better things this year not purely for selfish reasons – though it is a lot more fun to cover a winning team – but also because I’d like to see people’s work rewarded.

It’s a tough grind, trying to run a profitable junior-hockey team, especially in the Lower Mainland where people’s entertainment dollars are stretched in many directions, but the team’s staff – from Westgard and head coach Blaine Neufeld to former owner Ronnie Paterson and everyone else in the organization – have tried darn near everything to bring excitement back to South Surrey Arena.

Quibble with the results all you’d like – icing a nearly all-local roster in 2014 didn’t work – but moving home games this year to Thursday nights shows they aren’t afraid to try new things.

And last weekend’s alumni game, which featured former NHL star Scott Gomez, was by all accounts a success.

But while I’m no business major, when it comes to running a successful sports team, I tend to heed the oft-quoted advice of the late Al Davis, the legendary owner of the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders: “Just win, baby.”

It’s been far too long since the Eagles did that on a consistent basis, but for all involved, let’s hope now is the moment they start digging themselves out of the snow.

Nick Greenizan is a reporter at the Peace Arch News.

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