Surrey Eagles are aiming to fly to a championship year of junior hockey starting Friday night (Sept. 22) on home ice, 7 p.m. puck drop.
South Surrey Arena is where the Birds will face Victoria Grizzlies to start their new season in the new-look BC Hockey League, which has gone independent after exiting Hockey Canada and its restrictive roster rules.
With the BCHL’s renewed goal of being a development league for college-tracking athletes, Eagles head coach and general manager Cam Keith has spent much of his summer recruiting players from further afield to augment what’s now a 26-player roster.
“It’s just completely changed the game for us,” Keith said prior to a preseason practice. “The recruiting pool went from midget kids, academy kids and then your prep kids in the States to Alberta junior hockey, Saskatchewan, Manitoba. We have a kid from the Maritime league, Ontario league. So I didn’t have to trade for these kids, I could just recruit them. I had to go through every single team in Canada and go through every single player and figure out if that’s a kid that I want to try to recruit. So I built this massive recruiting board of potential players because now we’re looking at veteran junior-A players rather than trying to bring in younger players.”
He’s also been looking into the European market, but not so much.
“That’s a tricky one, you know, when you’re looking at bringing a kid from Sweden, you better be sure,” Keith added. “And you’d rather put a local kid in that spot if everything’s being equal.”
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Twenty-seven years ago, Alaska’s Scott Gomez was a teen playing in Surrey with the Eagles for what turned out to be just a single season, in 1996-97, before he won two Stanley Cups in the NHL with New Jersey Devils.
Keith and Gomez both have connections to Anchorage and the Aces ECHL team where the Nelson-raised Keith played wing in the mid-2000s. Not long ago, a mutual friend told Gomez that Keith was coaching in Surrey, and might need help on the bench.
“That interested me,” Gomez said. “I called the Eagles owner and asked if they needed some help, and that’s what I wanted to do, be Cam’s assistant here. One of the first things I said to him was, ‘I don’t want your job, man.’ He’s the boss. This ain’t about that, it’s about coming back here and helping the kids get to the next level.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m shocked how good these kids are,” Gomez added. “There’s talent out there, a lot of intelligent kids.”
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The ex-NHLer will coach forwards and run the power-play for the Eagles, who lost a few key players over the summer but also retained some familiar names.
“Key departures would be Eli Pulver, our goalie of the year last year. He’s with Salmon Arm now, but an addition there was Ajeet Gundarah, a goalie from Langley. We’re hoping he’s the guy this year,” the GM/coach said.
“We lost Jacob Bonkowski, who went to Salmon Arm as well, and Jake Bongo, our leading scorer and MVP last year, who went to Sacred Heart (Univesity, NCAA). We lost Tate Taylor to the USHL — that was a big blow but he put three years in with us in Surrey and wanted the next challenge.
“Returning players include Aaron Schwartz, our rookie of the year last year, and Zach Wagnon, a Yale commit who led our team in playoff scoring. We’re expecting a lot from him, and also Ryden Evers, a 17-year-old kid who was on NHL lists and on the bubble as far as getting drafted. Probably the biggest returning kid is the big staple on the back end, White Rock native Ty Brassington, who we’re hoping takes a step forward offensively. He’s our captain and leader by nature, it just comes natural to him.”
CLICK HERE to view the Eagles preseason roster.
Last April in the second round of playoffs the Eagles fell in Game 7 to Alberni Valley Bulldogs, 3-1 at South Surrey Arena.
This is a new year for Keith and crew, with championship goals and beefed up roster, in more ways than one.
“We built our team a little bit bigger this year,” he noted. “Losing Game 7, that can go either way, but I think that to control our destiny a little bit more, we built the team bigger. Last year our biggest forward was around six feet tall, and this year we have four kids who are six-three. We’re older and more experienced too. Our goal is to win the championship this year, and it’s a realistic goal.”