Hope springs eternal for all teams in the days leading up to the start of any regular season – every team is still undefeated, after all – and the Surrey Eagles are no different.
But coming off the two worst seasons in team history, there is reason for optimism as the BC Hockey League regular season hits the ice tonight (Friday).
The team – which has won just 16 of the last 116 games, dating back to 2014 – has been largely overhauled, both on the ice and behind the bench.
Up front, a slew of 18- and 19-year-old players have been brought into the fold from U.S.-based prep program, while Desi Burgart was acquired last month from the Penticton Vees.
There will be even more fresh faces on the team’s blue-line Friday – six-foot-six Tyler Cooper is one of the only returnees – as team spent the summer bringing in speedy puck-movers who can help boost the offence.
In net, 20-year-old Thunder Bay native Marc Audet – who has experience in the major-junior ranks – replaces graduating netminder Justin LaForest, and will team with third-year keeper Daniel Davidson in the crease.
“Marc will come in as the starter, and it’ll be Daniel’s job to push him every day, and they’ll get what they earn. The guy who is winning the games is the guy who will be playing,” said head coach/general manager Blaine Neufeld.
And while Neufeld is back behind the bench for a third season, he will be flanked by a pair of new assistant coaches in Colin Hemingway and Riley Sweeney, both former Eagles’ players.
The on-ice moves were made, Neufeld explained, in order to better take advantage of the bigger, Olympic-sized rink at South Surrey Arena.
As well, after two unsuccessful seasons playing largely with younger, untested players, this year’s team is “as old a group as we’ve had.”
“We have much more experience than ever, and more speed and skill, too,” said Neufeld.
“We recognize that with the sheet of ice we have, it’s crucial to our success that we adapt to more of a speed game. Our (defencemen) – we trust them in our own end, but the idea is that they’ll move the puck quickly and we’ll spend most of the time in the other end.”
The team will also be buoyed by a trio of returning forwards – captain Paul McAvoy, Semiahmoo Minor Hockey product Jeff Stewart and Darius Davidsdon, the latter of whom was traded to Penticton during the last season, and reacquired this summer.
“We’re going to put a lot of expectations on those guys, and we know they’re going to deliver for us,” Neufeld said.
Another common denominator – aside from speed – that the newcomers share is that they come from winning programs, either at the major-junior or prep levels. Having experience is successful environments will be key if the Eagles are to rebound, Neufeld said.
“I think we have a great mix. Our leadership group is very strong, and the guys we have coming from the prep schools out east are coming from very, very good programs,” he said. “We think that will allow us to get off to a good start this season, then continue to grow.”
With the additions to both the on-ice product and the coaching staff, Neufeld said he’s more confident than he’s ever been heading into a season.
After last season’s showing – the team finished with seven wins in 58 games – team president Chuck Westgard promised a full-scale organizational review, and one thing that came from that, Neufeld told Peace Arch News, was a commitment to boost resources when it comes to player recruitment.
“We’re being much more aggressive in our recruiting, and we’re able to make moves and trades that help our team, even though maybe right now, they cost us assets. But we’re in it to win it,” the coach said. “I’m more confident. It’s our time now to win.”
In an event to carve out one day of the week as their own, the Eagles this year will play a majority of their home games on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons, as opposed to Friday and Saturday nights as in the past.
The team will have just one Friday home game – today’s home-opener – and one on Saturday, while playing 17 Thursdays with 6:30 p.m. puck drops. Eight games will also be played Sundays at 4 p.m.
“We kind of want to make Thursdays and Sundays the days you can pin on the calendar and know that’s when the Eagles are playing,” said Neufeld. “We want Thursday night to be Hockey Night in South Surrey.”
Following tonight’s home-opener will be Saturday’s alumni game, which will pit the current roster against a team of former stars such as Scott Gomez – just retired from a long NHL career – Shane Kuss and Rodney Bowers, among others.
The game begins at 4 p.m. Saturday at South Surrey Arena, with tickets ($5) available at the door. For more information, visit www.surreyeagles.ca