Coming off a shortened BC Hockey League ‘pod’ season in which they lost just twice in 20 games, the Surrey Eagles will have a tough act to follow when they step on the ice this month for a more traditional hockey season.
Nevertheless, the goals for the team have not changed – they want to win a championship.
“We’d like to carry that momentum forward from the pod season – with our returning group and also some exciting rookies that we’ve added,” said Eagles head coach and associate general manager Cam Keith.
“Obviously, with last year’s success, we just want to continue to raise the bar.”
Playing last season against only the Coquitlam Express and Powell River Kings – the Eagles went 17-2-1 (win-loss-overtime loss). And though they lost a handful of graduating veterans from that squad, including forwards Brandon Santa Juana and Holden Katzalay, as well as defenceman and captain Kieran O’Hearn, this season’s team will still be chock full of talent, according to Keith.
“We’re really excited about the energy that these younger players are bringing. We’re going to be a little bit younger this year, but we’re very skilled – you can see it on the ice,” he said.
“We’re a very fast-paced, intelligent team, but because we’re young, it will take a little bit of time to get going.”
After playing the entire pod season out of the Scotia Barn in Burnaby, the Eagles will return to South Surrey Arena Oct. 8 for their regular-season home opener against the visiting Coquitlam Express. The following day, the Eagles will travel to Langley to play the Rivermen.
Keith singled out Semiahmoo Peninsula resident Grayden Slipec as among the team’s most exciting new additions. The 16-year-old rookie – who most recently played with the Burnaby Winter Club – is among Western Canada’s most well-regarded players for his age group, Keith said.
“He’s a kid who has had every single (NCAA) team in the country offering him a scholarship already,” Keith said. “But that being said, he is only 16 years old, so there’s some growth to still happen there. But it’s definitely exciting to have that kind of talent here on the team, especially when he’s a local player.”
Local talent will be in abundance on this year’s Eagles roster, Keith said, adding that there are likely to be just two American imports on the opening night roster, and just five players in total who require billets, with the rest living in the Surrey/White Rock area, or nearby cities such as Delta and Richmond.
Last season, while the BCHL was on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eagles’ American-born players all returned home to the States and signed on to play with teams in U.S. leagues, from New York to Texas, and those roster spots this fall have been filled with Lower Mainland talent – not by design, but simply because they were the best players available.
In 2014, the organization publicly stated it would ice a nearly all-local roster, but the results were disastrous and the team ended the year in last place with a 9-45-1-3 (win-loss-tie-overtime loss) record.
Today’s talent pool, however, is much deeper locally, Keith was quick to point out.
“These kids, they’re just better players than are available in other places, so it was an easy decision for us,” he said.
“I think we have six or seven kids from the Delta Hockey Academy, and that’s just down the road from us, so we’ve seen these guys play 10 times before they even come through our doors.”
This season, the Birds will be backstopped in net by Max Prazma, who will take over as the No. 1 goalie after splitting games during the 20-game season with departed veteran Thomas Scarfone.
Prazma, who at six-foot-five inches tall cuts an opposing figure between the pipes, went 7-1 (win-loss) last spring, with a .928 save-percentage.
Keith, who joined the Eagles as head coach prior to the 2019-20 season, said this group of players is “the fastest, most offensive team I’ve seen in my three seasons here,” while also acknowledging that it will likely take the team a little while to gel.
Additionally, with younger players – especially those who are highly skilled, with more of an offence-first mindset – there are often adjustments that need to be made in terms of defensive play.
“We’ll have some work to do on the defensive side – when to take a chance and when it’s time to just make the smart play – but that all comes with maturity,” Keith said.
“But once everyone adjusts to the league we’re going to be a very dangerous team down the stretch.”