After back-to-back BC Hockey League seasons with fewer than 10 wins, the Surrey Eagles are about to undergo a thorough “top to bottom” review of the organization in an attempt to right the listing ship.
Co-owner and team president Chuck Westgard told Peace Arch News this week that the organization is “regrouping and taking a look at things,” after the Eagles wrapped up a disappointing 7-48-1-2 season (win-loss-overtime loss-tie) – the worst record in the league by far.
In the last two BCHL regular seasons – under head coach Blaine Neufeld – the team has 16 wins in 116 games.
“Believe me, after nine wins and seven wins, we’re exploring all our avenues to make not only the on-ice product better, but management better and the organization better,” Westgard said.
Westgard – who, along with childhood friends Gary Nylund and Scott Bradley bought the team from Ronnie Paterson in 2010 – acknowledged the recent record could hurt the team’s ability to recruit top players.
“It’s a concern. After last season, with nine wins and going with the all-local roster, we thought we should change things up. We had high hopes at the start of the year, but we could never really attract all the players we wanted,” he said.
“We thought we had players this year… but we found out pretty early in the year that we really didn’t, and we took a bit of a step back.”
Westgard wouldn’t lay the blame entirely on hockey operations, saying instead it was “an organizational thing,” noting that attracting players is a priority.
“You have to be able to convince the kids, the families, the universities that this is a good place to play. It takes years to build that, but only takes one bad season to unravel it,” he said. “No doubt about it, it’s something we have to look at, and we are.”
Wins and losses aside, the 2015/16 season was also marked by the the mid-season resignation of Nylund as assistant coach, and the December departures of Westgard’s son, Ty – who left the team for the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals – and fellow forward Darius Davidson, who was traded to the Penticton Vees. (Davidson is the son of Bill Davidson, whose Pro 4 Sports company owns a stake in the Eagles.)
“Obviously it was a little different this year, with the people involved, and (our) own kids leaving,” Westgard said. “With Ty, we would’ve liked him to have stayed and finished Grade 12 here, but it was his decision. We tried to promote the college route. He had full-ride offers from (NCAA) Div. 1 schools but wasn’t accepting them. So I just asked him what his plans were for next year and he said he was going (to the WHL).”
The team’s struggles played a part in the decision, Westgard said.
“You know, I think if we had the team we had in 2013, he’d have stayed for sure. But these were the circumstances.”
Nylund – who sold his minority stake in the team to Westgard a few years ago – left due to disagreements over how the team was being run, Westgard said.
Nylund had been an assistant coach with the Eagles in 2013 when Matt Erhart coached the team to a league title, but he left for family reasons. This past season under Neufeld – who was employed by Pro 4 Sports prior to coaching the Eagles – was Nylund’s first back behind the bench.
“Gary and I are the best of friends, and I know he loved the boys, but there were a few conflicts with how he wanted to run things. Not conflicts between him and I, but between the different ownership groups, myself and Pro 4,” Westgard explained. “When things aren’t going that well and the product on the ice is not competitive, it’s a tough situation. I just think it got to the point where it wasn’t the same type of environment as it was when he first was here, and it just didn’t really work.”
Coaching philosophies aside, Westgard brushed off the suggestion of internal conflict at the ownership and management level.
“I don’t think it’s unstable at this point… it’s stable enough. We’re just in a bit of transition, and obviously I’m involved – I’m hoping to get back to where we were a couple years back,” he said.
Though a decline in on-ice performance often correlates to a decline in ticket sales and a team’s finances, Westgard suggested the team is “alive and well, financially.”
Last December, in an email to PAN, the BCHL head office reiterated as much, writing that “as far as the league is concerned, the Surrey franchise is as committed to their operation in the BCHL as they’ve ever been.”
“Rumours do go around, but as long as I’m involved, there will be a team on the ice here,” Westgard said. “But everything needs to improve. It has to. There’s not much lower to go, so we need to figure out a way to go up from here.”