Garrett James photo Surrey Eagles rookie Mackenzie Merriman is among a handful of local players on the team’s roster this season.

Garrett James photo Surrey Eagles rookie Mackenzie Merriman is among a handful of local players on the team’s roster this season.

Improved Surrey Eagles see gains on, off ice

BCHL team not far off from contending, says owner

Now four years removed from a seven-win season in the BC Hockey League – during which empty seats at South Surrey Arena were more visible than fans – things are looking up for the Surrey Eagles, both on and off the ice.

The team is, for the first time since its last postseason appearance in 2013/14, a legitimate playoff contender. The Eagles’ current record is 6-8-1-1 (win-loss-tie-overtime loss), which is good enough for fourth in the Mainland Division, but there are enough positive signs to suggest more wins are on the way.

And all of that is good for the team’s fans, which have been growing steadily since bottoming out after seven- and nine-win seasons not that long ago.

This year, the team reports that attendance at home games is up nearly 40 per cent, and the team currently has 282 season-ticket holders.

“And three years ago, we only had 28, if you can believe that,” said Eagles general manager Blaine Neufeld, who held the duel head coach/GM role during the aforementioned last-place seasons.

“We’ve put in a lot of work trying to get involved in the community, and I think that’s gone a long way to getting fans interested and invested in the team again.”

Wesley snipes five goals for Eagles in two games

Winning – and playing exciting hockey – certainly helps, too. And the Eagles have certainly been doing more of that so far this season than in years past. Four of the team’s six wins so far this season have been in front of home fans, while the losses have been close games, or at least given fans something to cheer about.

“Johnny Wesley scored four goals (in a 5-4 loss to Vernon),” Neufeld said, pointing to one example.

Both Neufeld and team owner Chuck Westgard told Peace Arch News that the team has made a concerted effort to make the team and its players more visible in the community, through visits to elementary schools or involvement with local minor-hockey associations, which has helped boost the team’s profile. But in the end, they agreed, winning truly does cure most ills.

“That’s obviously a great piece of the puzzle, because there’s a belief every single night that we’re going to go into our arena and win,” Neufeld said.

“We’re trying to show our faces through the community and… we’re trying to invite the community out to the games. It’s been encouraging to see the response, and I think now we’re starting to get them hooked into Eagles hockey again.”

Westgard added that there is “a lot more buzz” in the community and the arena than in recent years.

The new structure of the team’s hierarchy – with Brandon West as the team’s head coach, Neufeld focusing solely on off-ice concerns, and Westgard taking a more active role in the team’s day-to-day operations – has also gone a long way to improving the team, Neufeld said.

“We’ve hired the right people in the right places to do their job – and they’re doing them well.”

Though the organization is finally starting to see better results this season, those in charge haven’t exactly been resting on their laurels in the years prior, and have been open to trying new things – from moving the majority of the team’s home games to Thursday nights last season, to icing a roster of nearly 100 per cent local talent three seasons ago.

This year, the team has moved its home games back to the traditional Friday night after hearing from fans during the most recent off-season.

“It was a matter of trying something new, and I do think it was picking up steam later in the season, as people began to realize we were playing on Thursday nights. But going back and talking to people… the majority said they were a little bit more available on a Friday night,” Neufeld said.

“I think it was a bit of a trial-and-error thing. We were optimistic about it at the time… but we want to make sure we listened to what the people had to say, and appease them.”

As for the all-local roster, Neufeld admits now that some of those players weren’t quite ready to play at the junior ‘A’ level, though he’s quick to point out that this year’s team is still chock full of local faces, many of whom are playing starring roles.

Goaltender Daniel Davidson – who served as a 16-year-old backup during the 2014/15 season – is in his fourth full year with the team, and has played well enough in a starting role that the team recently dealt away 20-year-old RBC Cup-winning veteran goalie Alex Horawski. The team’s new second goaltender is another local, Nic Tallarico, a former Valley West Hawks in the BC Major Midget League.

Up front, two-thirds of the team’s first line is from the Semiahmoo Peninsula – Johnny Wesley, who leads the BCHL in scoring, and Ty Westgard, who is seventh overall in points with 20 in 16 games.

“Looking back, there were certain things I would’ve done differently. I think that (original) group (of local players) was a little bit rushed into the lineup,” Neufeld said. “Now, we’re still recruiting the top local kids – and there’s no greater example of that than Mackenzie Merriman, who’s a local boy – but we’re finding way to set them up for success, rather than rushing the process.”

Westgard was excited with the current direction of the team, but was also insistent that more can be done to improve the product. As well, he said the “wait till next year” rebuilding approach was over.

“We’re excited, but we’re still building, and I don’t think we’re too far off (from contending),” he said.

“We’ll be looking to add players who can make us better. We’re going to try to win this year – we aren’t pushing for ‘next year’ anymore.”

The Eagles play three times this weekend. Tonight (Friday), they host the visiting Salmon Arm Silverbacks, and Saturday, they travel to Coquitlam for a road game against the Express. On Sunday, the Birds are back at South Surrey Arena for a 4 p.m. game against Prince George.

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