SURREY — Cliff Annable remembers the beginning.
“Surrey was building a new rink (the South Surrey Arena) and the Seattle Thunderbirds were looking for a farm team. So it made sense when the New Westminster Royals were moved to South Surrey to be that much closer to Seattle.”
That was 1991, and Annable was “just a season ticket holder” then.
But everything changed in 1993. Annable knew the Thunderbirds ran the squad in their own best interests, and he knew the local box office suffered because of it. So when he got word the team was up for sale, “I looked at it, and it made no sense economically.
“But,” he adds with a laugh, “I was bored.”
So he bought the South Surrey Eagles, as the team was then known, for “about $100,000.”
By 1996, Annable’s influence was obvious. He’d recruited former NHLer Rick Lanz as coach. He’d traveled to Alaska – with Lanz – to secure a promising newcomer named Scott Gomez, who promptly racked up 124 points in a 1996-97 season that fell just a few games short of the national championship.
One year later, backed by the motto “Unfinished Business” and a long string of standing-room-only crowds, that championship was in the bag.
This Friday, Sept. 11 at 7 p.m., ex-owner Annable and a gaggle of other past and present Surrey Eagles players and staff begin a season-long celebration of 25 years of Surrey-based Eagles hockey. Crosstown rivals Langley Rivermen provide the opposition, but Eagles’ VP Kevin Simpson promises much more than big hits and cannonading drives.
“We’re having a pre-game party before the game, from 6 to 7 p.m., with live music, food trucks, kids games, face painting and more. Then Mayor Linda Hepner and Eagles’ first captain Paul McMillan will drop the puck to kick off the 25th season.”
The first of several Sunday “Family Days” follows on the 15th, with a freebie skate and autograph session immediately after the game. More extracurricular goodies will pop up throughout 2015-16 as the Eagles continue to recognize not only their “Silver Season” but also a “community engagement” initiative begun when current owner Chuck Westgard bought out his partners early last year.
The on-ice product, meanwhile, looks to be an upgrade on the 2014-15 iteration. Indeed, it needs to be.
The Eagles, after all, are coming off one of the worst years in franchise history. Just a couple seasons after competing once again for the Royal Bank Cup, the team found itself in the midst of a major rebuild that never caught fire. Nine wins in 58 games. A season-long goal differential of -144.
“We were a new group who tried to rush a new direction, tried to force a hand,” said head coach Blaine Neufeld in discussing the Eagles’ fresh-for-2014 emphasis on elite, young, local players.
Like a lot of coaches trying to explain a sub-par campaign, Neufeld also plays the injury card. But with good reason; just a couple months into the season, the Eagles were missing a half-dozen players, including star netminder Christian Short.
Atypically young (28) for a coach at this level, Neufeld seems more mature than his years would indicate. And certainly his background – he played under both Don Hay and Willy Desjardins during his WHL days, and is already entering his eighth year behind the bench – suggests he’s one to watch.
This is Neufeld’s second season at the helm of the Eagles, but first with a full off-season of preparation. And that, he says, makes a big difference.
“You win in the off-season. And the recruiting process this off-season was strong,” he said. “You have to talk to a lot of kids and a lot of parents, and that’s just what we did. We want to make sure all the elite local players come here, and we also want to create a positive environment that helps these boys become good citizens.”
This season, the accent is on D, and Neufeld points to a bolstered, mobile defensive corps that includes newly acquired 6’3” defensemonster Ludvig Adamsen. But the big pickup may well be 20-year-old goalie Justin LaForest, who has backstopped two separate teams to two consecutive Royal Bank Cup appearances.
Up front, the Eagles’ projected top line should, in theory, deliver the goods. Last year’s leading scorer, Darius Davidson, is back in the fold and he’s skating with newcomers Kyle Star and Kodi Schwarz, Langley natives both acquired via trade.
This coming season will also mark the return of a guy who probably should have been an Eagle all along: former NHLer and current Delta firefighter Gary Nylund. Nylund completes a coaching staff that includes fellow assistant Brad Tobin and bench boss Neufeld.