For any junior hockey coach, bringing in players from afar who you’ve never actually seen play is an inexact science.
Maybe they’re not as good as advertised, maybe they don’t fit well with the team’s style of play, or maybe they simply don’t like playing that far from home.
But still, scouring hockey rinks far and wide for talent is essential to ice a successful team, which is why coaches and general managers – like Surrey Eagles’ Matt Erhart – have to trust their scouts, contacts, and good word-of-mouth reports when bringing in import players.
“Obviously, we have a scouting staff, but a lot of it is personal connections,” said Erhart, a former Eagles defenceman who also played at Quinnipiac University.
“For me, it’s old college coaches, former teammates, or other people I’ve met through hockey.”
The Eagles also have a strong presence in the northeastern United States – the team’s co-owner Scott Bradley is a longtime employee of the Boston Bruins, and has plenty of hockey contacts himself.
“It’s really a group effort. We just pool our resources here and there and find some kids who want to join our program,” Erhart said.
Each BCHL team is allowed eight import players, and a player loses import status once they’ve played a full season in the league. The Eagles currently have five imports on the active roster, and another, forward Edward Creighton, who will be added once he recovers from an injury suffered on the first day of training camp in August.
Many of the Birds’ imports this season hail from back east; forwards Brandon Tanev, Sean McGovern and Creighton are from Ontario, while Charles Orzetti is a New Jersey native. Another Eagle, second-year defenceman Beau Orser, is also an Ontario native.
Other non-B.C. players on the roster include blue-liner D.J. Jones and forward Ben Greiner, both of whom are from Minnesota.
Erhart said a roster heavy on Easterners was not done by design, but simply worked out that way this year.
“There are certain schools, certain guys, I’m friends with, or know well, and they’ll recommend guys they think will succeed in the style we play, and on the Olympic-sized (ice) sheet,” he said.
By luck or design, past Eagles teams have often iced rosters heavy on players from a certain geographical area. Under former owner Bruce Rielly, who lived in Newport Beach, Calif., the team frequented signed players from the Golden State, and a fair number of Alaskan-born players have also worn the Eagles’ jersey in recent years.
And the Eagles are not alone. This year in Penticton, the Vees roster boasts eight Minnesota natives, thanks in no small part to head coach Fred Harbinson’s connections to the state; he was formerly an assistant coach at St. Cloud State.
And while one might assume the move cross-country is a difficult one for teenage hockey players, Beau Orser – who came to Surrey last year after 2½ years with the Ontario Junior A League’s Huntsville Otters – said the transition is actually quite smooth.
“It was certainly a big move, but right from Day 1, I knew I was going to do whatever it took to reach my goal (of securing an NCAA scholarship), whether I had to move this far away from home or not. I didn’t really care – I just wanted to pursue my hockey career,” said Orser. “It was a very smooth adjustment. I was very fortunate to have fantastic billets, Dave and Sandy Koch. They made it a very easy transition for me, and treated me like family.”
The lure of scholarships, and the fact that the BCHL is considered perhaps the country’s top Junior A league, makes recruiting players fairly easy, Erhart said.
And if that doesn’t work, he joked, he just points them towards the water.
“We bring them out in the summer for a visit and show them the beach,” he laughed. “A lot of kids see it and they don’t want to leave.”
For rookie forward Sean McGovern, it wasn’t the beach, but a playoff game, that sealed his decision to come to Surrey.
“It was Game 2 or Game 3 last year against Powell River, and I knew right away this was the right move for me,” said McGovern, who played last season at a prep school in Connecticut.
“It was great hockey – high speed, great energy… and I felt this was the right thing to do.”