The Surrey Eagles are turning the page on last season, which despite being one of the most successful in recent years, still ended on a sour note – with a Game 7 loss to Prince George in the second round of the playoffs.
The Eagles led that best-of-seven series 3-1 before letting it slip away. But instead of dwelling on it, members of the BC Hockey League squad are focusing on the positive – the two-round post-season appearance was the team’s first foray into the playoffs in four seasons – and are aiming to build on that success.
That quest begins this weekend, when the team – which finished last season with a 26-22-8 record (win-loss-overtime loss) – opens its BCHL regular-season schedule Friday night (Sept. 7) at South Surrey Arena against the Coquitlam Express, and Saturday against Wenatchee Wild.
The team will head into the 2018-19 with Peter Schaefer as head coach, after Brandon West stepped down from the position on Aug. 28, well into the team’s preseason.
“He (West) kind of caught us off-guard with that,” team GM Blaine Neufeld said Friday, “and we thought everything was moving forward the way we hoped, but he let us know that it wasn’t something he was going to get behind and wouldn’t be the guy here.
“We thought he did a good job last year and helped with the recruiting of guys this year, with a bit more of a say in that,” Neufeld added about West, who’s from the Kelowna area and stepped down for personal reasons.
Promoting Schaefer to bench boss was “the most natural fit,” Neufeld said, especially so late in the game.
“He got to know the guys over the past couple of weeks. He’s been in the position before here, has the experience.… It made the most sense.”
On Aug. 30, the Eagles announced the hiring of Brad Tobin as an assistant coach as a part of Schaefer’s staff.
Tobin, 29, previously served as an assistant in Surrey from 2010to 2016 before leaving for the Creston Valley Thunder Cats of the Kootenay junior league, first serving as an assistant, then head coach and general manager.
During his playing career, Tobin spent four years in the Pacific Junior Hockey League and KIJHL as a defenceman with North Delta Devils and Columbia Valley Rockies.
“I’m very excited to be given the opportunity to come back and work with Peter Schaefer once again,” Tobin said in a statement posted to the Eagles’ website. “It’s been a whirlwind 24 hours. I definitely took some time to think about the offer. At the end of the day, I couldn’t say no to coming back to the BCHL and working with players that are getting recognized at the National Hockey League level.”
Looking ahead, Neufeld said the team’s focus this season is simple: Win the league championship.
“That’s a lofty goal for some but I think we’ve positioned ourselves to do that,” he said. “The playoff experience, that was nice to have back in South Surrey. We have a lot of firepower, and our defence and goaltending is more sound this year, and we’re expecting big things.”
This year’s squad will look markedly different than last year’s group that ended the franchise’s postseason drought.
Gone from last year’s club are a handful of forwards who drove the team’s offence, including former leading goal-scorer John Wesley, his linemate Desi Burgart and longtime Birds forward – and Semiahmoo Minor Hockey alum – Jeff Stewart.
Ryan Brushett, who scored 21 goals and added 49 points, is also gone, having been dealt back to the Vernon Vipers – where he played in 2016/17 – while depth forward Chase Danol and defenceman Cory Babichuk were also traded in the offseason, and a handful of newcomers were acquired, including forward Eric Linell and veteran goalie Seth Eisele, formerly of the Coquitlam Express and Wenatchee Wild, respectively.
Key blue-liners Owen Norton and Jackson Ross have also graduated from the BCHL into the NCAA.
One key member of the offence who is back in the fold is Ty Westgard, a Semiahmoo Peninsula native who last year centred the team’s top line with Wesley and Burgart. He finished the 2017/18 campaign as the Birds’ leading scorer, with 15 goals and 70 points in 56 games.
Westgard and other returnees will likely be counted on heavily, especially in the early parts of the season as the team looks to gel and forge a new identity.
Though last year’s squad had no trouble putting the puck into their opponents’ net – they were the highest scoring team in the Mainland Division – they struggled at times keeping it out of their own, which led to some high-scoring affairs. Only six BCHL teams gave up more goals last year than the 208 Surrey allowed. The goaltending tandem of Eisele and Daniel Davidson will be counted on to help improve that stat for the Eagles this season.
– with files from Tom Zillich