If nothing else, the Surrey Eagles have remained true to their word.
In the summer, team brass – including president Chuck Westgard and new coach/GM Blaine Neufeld – committed to filling the roster with as much local talent as they could.
With that goal in mind, Neufeld spent much of his offseason signing young players with local ties, while bringing aboard a few veterans via trade.
The end result? Fourteen of the 22 players on the BC Hockey League team’s opening-night roster are from Semiahmoo, Cloverdale or Surrey minor-hockey systems – a number that Neufeld admits surprised even him.
“We made that commitment to local players, but it’s a higher number than we even expected,” he said Tuesday.
“But we’ve had some surprises, as far as those local kids go. We gave a lot of them opportunities at camp, and they came in very dedicated and motivated, and they earned spots on our team.
“It’s a unique position they were in – with the chance to play for their hometown team, and they took advantage of it. They impressed us.”
How the hometown philosophy pans out will be known over time, beginning this weekend when the team opens its season in Chilliwack at the BC Hockey League’s annual showcase.
Surrey will open the regular-season schedule Friday evening, 7:30 p.m. at the Prospera Centre, against the Penticton Vees, and will play their second game of the weekend Sunday, 5:30 p.m., against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
The Eagles will hold its home-opener the following Friday, Sept. 26, against the Chilliwack Chiefs. Two days later, they’ll host the Prince George Spruce Kings Sunday afternoon (4 p.m. puck drop). In between games, they’ll head back to Chilliwack Saturday for a rematch with the Chiefs.
After losing some key offensive weapons to the NCAA – former captain and Boston Bruins draft pick Danton Heinen and power forward Anthony Conti both left this summer for college – the Eagles will rely this year on a number of young players up front.
Among the newcomers are a pair of Surrey rookies – forward John Wesley and defenceman Matt Barberis – who were both late cuts of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants.
Wesley, 17, led the Junior ‘B’ Richmond Sockeyes in scoring last season, with 27 goals and 57 points in 44 games, while Barberis spent last year with the Valley West Hawks of the BC Major Midget League.
Though both may end up back in the WHL in the future, Neufeld was happy to have them aboard for this year, at least.
“I talked to both of them when they were cut by the Giants, and they were disappointed, of course, but now I think they’re excited to come here and have a good season,” he said. “Whether we are promoting players to major-junior hockey or college, we’re happy to help players (advance), so hopefully they come in and have great seasons for us.”
Ty Westgard, son of president/owner Chuck, is also a rookie to watch this season, Neufeld said.
A draft pick of the WHL’s Victoria Royals, the Valley West-grad is “going to be one of our most exciting players to watch” Neufeld predicted.
The youngsters will be led by some key returnees, namely 20-year-old Chase McMurphy and Darius Davidson. Speaking of McMurphy – who was acquired last season from the Vernon Vipers – Neufeld expects him to “put up some pretty big numbers for us” during the 2014/15 season.
Last year, he had 11 points in 18 games for the Eagles, after tallying seven points in 18 games in Vernon.
With so much youth up front, Neufeld expects the team’s strength to come from the back-end – at least until the young forwards adjust to the league.
On the blue-line, Brian Drapluk returns from last season, while towering Surrey-born defenceman Latrell Charleson – who was acquired in the summer from the Saskatchewn Junior Hockey League – will “definitely be a top-four guy” according to Neufeld.
One of the more intriguing players on the team this year will be found in the crease, as 19-year-old Ontario native Christian Short has cemented himself as the early-season starter.
Short played last year at a U.S. prep academy – Cantebury School in Connecticut – and will get his first taste of junior hockey this season.
The rookie will certainly take up plenty of space between the pipes – he’s listed at six-foot-four and 203 pounds – and, Neufeld said, has already drawn interest from college scouts.
“He’s a big, talent kid – he’s got a real high ceiling,” the coach said. “We’re going to give him a lot of minutes.”
Backing up Short will be 16-year-old rookie Daniel Davidson, another Surrey native. He played last season for the Delta Hockey Academy.
With so much youth in the lineup – Westgard has repeatedly referred to it as a “transition” period – Neufeld said he’ll be patient with his squad, but it still aiming for a playoff spot.
“That’s the goal, absolutely. We’ve got a bunch of new players, young players, but they’re a confident bunch. We’ll see what happens.”