Prior to the start of the BC Hockey League’s 20-game condensed schedule, Surrey Eagles head coach Cam Keith said that, considering the months-long layoff his players had just endured, he didn’t expect to hear much in the way of ice-time complaints.
His prediction was correct.
Through just over half of the mini-season – which has seen all teams play more games per week than they’re used to, including some three-games-in-four-nights stretches – he said he hasn’t heard a peep from anyone angling for a day off.
“No complaints. None. I think they’re all still just very happy to be playing, and the success helps, too. We’ve got guys who are getting some points, scoring some goals,” he told Peace Arch News recently, during a rare lull in the schedule that saw the team have three days off between games.
“Maybe in a normal season, when you’ve got (a smaller roster) and only a couple extra players, you have some kids who need time off, but nobody is saying a word. We have 25 guys and we’ve rarely had to sit anyone because of injuries or anything like that.
“I think guys are playing through (minor) things because they’re just so excited to be out there, and it’s a short window, too. A couple weeks, it goes by really quick, and they’re all trying to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Though the season is flying by, the Eagles themselves have soared. Playing in a three-team pod alongside the Coquitlam Express and Powell River Kings, the Semiahmoo Peninsula-based squad sits with a record of 12-2-1 (win-loss-overtime loss), which not only perches them atop the three-team group, but puts them second in the entire BCHL, behind only the Penticton Vees.
Keith admits that while finishing among the league’s top teams in total points is a goal, the coaching staff isn’t overly concerned with wins and losses, but more the development of the team’s young players with an eye toward next season, which will hopefully include a more traditional schedule and playoffs.
The BCHL announced this week that there would be no postseason at the end of the 20-game schedule.
And though the coaches may not be chewing out the team after a bad play, or kicking trash cans after a tough loss, Keith said it’s nearly impossible to change the mindset of the players themselves, and playoffs or not, they want to win.
“We’re just more focused on ourselves, rather than trying to break down other team’s tendencies like you’d normally do in a season… but that being said, anytime these kids get on the ice – whether they’re playing mini games against each other or playing on TV, they’re playing to win,” he said.
“As coaches, we’re taking a bit of a different approach, but the players are still playing. And the byproduct of a more relaxed (approach) is that they’ve had success and we’re winning games.”
Playing the same two opponents over and over again hasn’t yet become stale, Keith said, and compared the repeat matchups to a playoff series where two teams square off a number of times in short order. That playoff-style game atmosphere – “Some of the guys are building some animosity with each other out there,” he said – may bode well for Surrey’s younger players when they return next year, with Keith noting that they currently have eight or nine forwards and five defencemen projected to return for the 2021-22 season in the fall.
“I think if you were to say, ‘Go play 50 or 60 games against these two teams,’ then, yeah, it would get old, but it’s been fine,” he said.
“The guys are getting used to different game situations and it’s been kind of fun. You’re being put in spots that you haven’t been in for a while – you’ve gotta come back in a third period, or you have a big penalty kill late in the game. In those cases, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing.”
On the subject of returnees for next year, Keith singled out a pair of young White Rock forwards – Jacob Slipec and Buddy Johnson – as two players who have improved their stock considerably since the season began earlier this month.
Slipec – who at 19 years old has had BCHL stints with both Powell River and Chilliwack – has 11 points in 12 games, while Johnson has 15 goals in 13 games.
“They’ve really found their games and taken that next step to becoming top-six forwards,” Keith said.
“That’s what this season has been all about – giving guys an opportunity to display the progress they’ve made.”