Despite an off-season without traditional summer camps or scouting trips, and with a not-exactly-set-in-stone start date less than a month away, the White Rock Whalers are as prepared as can be for the 2020-’21 junior ‘B’ hockey season, their head coach says.
Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring – which came in the midst of the Pacific Junior Hockey League’s playoff schedule – the team had already scouted a number of potential future Whalers, and in recent weeks they’ve held numerous virtual meetings with returning and prospective players, alike.
As well, in lieu of one large spring camp – currently not allowed under the province’s 50-people-or-less rules – the White Rock squad has been holding smaller, more informal ‘identification skates’ where interested players can showcase their skills for the coaching staff.
“I think we’ve been fortunate with our group, having identified some players last season,” head coach Jason Rogers told Peace Arch News in mid-August.
“There was a lot of demand for skates, and it’s sometimes just a problem of getting ice – not just us, but everywhere – but we were fortunate to have some quality skates. We just set up a system where players could reach out to us if they were interested.
“And for meetings, virtual is the way to go. We set up Zoom calls with them, and made sure the parents were involved in the process, too, and if they had questions, we were available to answer them.”
Earlier this summer, the PJHL announced that the new 44-game season would start Sept. 29, and while that date could very well be rescheduled – Rogers himself said he’s not sure that date is “realistic” – the team is preparing as though they’ll hit the ice at the end of the month.
“We pride ourselves on being prepared and doing the heavy lifting early, so we’re ready for whatever comes at us. So no matter what the season looks like or when it starts, we’ll be ready,” Rogers said.
In the last few weeks, the team – which made the playoffs last season in just its second year of existence – had added three players to its ranks, announcing the signings of two former affiliate players, Sam Dowell and David Moody, while also adding Delta Hockey Academy defenceman Geoff Johnson.
Dowell, an 18-year-old South Surrey resident, scored a goal for the Whalers last season. He also has PJHL experience with the Delta Ice Hawks and Abbotsford Pilots.
“Last season when I was with the Pod, it was amazing,” Dowell said in a mid-August news release. “They brought me in like I was family.”
Rogers, meanwhile, predicted Dowell will “bring lots of energy each night.”
Moody, 17, also has previous PJHL experience with Abbotsford, and appeared in Whalers’ colours during their playoff run last spring.
“Two of them already had experience with us last year and experience in the league, so it’s a good fit. We were happy with the work they put in and that they wanted to come back, and then getting Geoff out of the Delta Academy, that’s a big pick-up for us,” Rogers told PAN.
“He’s got lots of room for improvement and he wants to get better and we think he’s going to be a real good player for us.”
As for further roster moves, Rogers said all teams are in something of a holding pattern considering the uncertainty that still surrounds the coming season, as well as the fact that the junior ‘A’ BC Hockey League isn’t planning to open its new season until December. Typically, both junior circuits begin at the same time – along with the major-junior Western Hockey League – and as players are cut from the top of the pyramid, they filter down to the lower leagues, such as the PJHL.
Now, players holding out hope for a WHL or BCHL roster spot may not be available to junior ‘B’ programs in time for a late-September puck drop.
Conversely, with junior ‘A’ and WHL teams expected to hold smaller camps, some players may choose the certainty of playing with a junior ‘B’ team instead, Rogers noted.
Regardless, the uncertainty is tough to predict, which may lead to more in-season roster shuffling than a typical year.
“It’s really hard to tell (what will happen), because it’s all about the trickle down. In junior ‘A’, they’re proposing skates and camps (that last throughout the fall), and we expect to have one or two guys there, so that’s a challenge,” Rogers noted.
“Quite honestly, nobody really knows the impact COVID will have on university-aged players, either. Are they going away (to play at university) or will they stay here? Are there some who aren’t comfortable playing hockey in the current environment at all? It’s all very hard to tell.
“But if some of our guys manage to make it into the smaller groups (at the higher levels), then good for them – I wish them the best. Part of our program’s goal is to develop them and see them move on to that next level, so if that works out for them, great. And if it doesn’t, we’ll see what our roster looks like at that time and then maybe we’ll have some decisions to make.”
In the meantime, Rogers said his team will continue to skate in small groups – with each a mix of returning, new and prospective players – and be prepared to play when called upon.
“Our guys are ready to go.”