Surrey Knights majority owner and coach John Craighead on the bench at North Surrey Recreation Centre earlier this season. (file photo: Tom Zillich)

‘We’ll find our way’: Embattled Surrey Knights owner/coach talks about hockey future, record losses

John Craighead’s first interview in three years touches on the franchise’s courtroom win over league

Take a peek at the Pacific Junior Hockey League standings and one might expect John Craighead to be pessimistic about his cellar-dwelling Surrey Knights, but that’s not the case at all.

“We’ll find our way, we’ll get our chances, we’re patient,” said Craighead, the junior team’s co-owner and coach. “It’s all positive from here on in.”

It was a Thursday night – game night at the Knights’ home rink, North Surrey Recreation Centre – and Craighead spoke to the Now-Leader prior to faceoff, in the first media interview he’d granted in three years.

That night, Dec. 6, the Surrey squad went on to end a year-long losing streak, edging the expansion White Rock Whalers by a score of 6-5.

Players wearing yellow and green mobbed the goaltender and skated off the ice overjoyed, and with good reason. For Craighead and the Knights, it’s been a tough three years.

Craighead returned to coach the team this season after serving a suspension related to an altercation in September 2015 during a game in Langley, where the Knights were based prior to the team moving to Surrey a season later.

“By no means was I innocent during the scenario (in Langley),” Craighead told the Now-Leader, “but I went to the aid of a bunch of young kids that were getting bullied, right? They sent five of my kids to the hospital and broke my partner’s kid’s leg right in front of me. So I don’t care about rules at that time. I acted on it out of a dad scenario and, you know, basically brought it all to a halt. Yeah, in doing so, was it wrong? Yeah, absolutely, I should have been punished, but absolutely I think I served my time.”

League officials weren’t happy with Craighead’s actions that night in Langley, and moved to oust the team from the league almost 21 months after the brawl.

That’s when lawyers got involved.

In October of this year, the Knights scored a big victory in a Vancouver courtroom, where a judge sided with ownership of the Surrey team in its battle with the PJHL.

In a 55-page Reasons for Judgment published on Oct. 12, Madam Justice Janet Winteringham found “the PJHL violated the requirements of procedural fairness” for initiating a move to expel the franchise from the league. As well, “the conduct of the PJHL, in targeting the team, in addition to the other failures, was unfairly prejudicial” to Craighead and Amar Gill, co-owner of the Knights.

• RELATED STORY: Courtroom win for Surrey Knights in hockey team’s battle with league.

Feeling vindicated, but with a bruised reputation, Craighead went about coaching the Knights, who had endured a record-breaking losing streak over the previous couple of seasons, and have just a single win and one overtime loss in 31 games during the current PJHL campaign.

“The three years (suspension) was overkill anyways, and then the rest of that on top of it, well, it’s there in writing,” Craighead said, referring to the recent Supreme Court of B.C. ruling.

“But it’s all very exciting to be back, but don’t forget my suspension was lifted Sept. 1,” he continued. “I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody in my own organization for a long time, including staff that’s been with this team before I even took this team over. People stuck with us, even through the hard times. A lot of people jumped ship including the, you know, a lot of the general public that really didn’t know what was going on, including the media, including the league, and it all kind of got wrapped up in some stuff that wasn’t true, right.”

With his suspension about to end at the start of the current hockey season, Craighead made plans to return to the bench and continue coaching and developing players in their mid-teens.

Craighead, 47, was a rugged winger during his playing days, which included five games with the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs, during the 1996-97 year, and several seasons of minor-pro action in North America and Europe. As a junior in the early 1990s, he played on BCJHL teams based in Ladner, New West, Chilliwack and Surrey.

“I lived on the street in Vancouver with my sister and then, you know, realistically, eight years later I’m playing in the National Hockey League,” Craighead said. “My whole life has been hockey, right, and to have that, you know, just about taken away from me was devastating.

“Getting back into it, yeah, of course, my passion is great,” added Craighead, a South Langley resident. “The season-opener was on the sixth (of September), and I had five days to ice a team, or my team would have been suspended. That was the rule. So I’m lucky that the courts looked at it and read deep and really saw what was going on here and the manipulation behind the scenes. That’s my livelihood. That’s my family, you know, my living, right? So it was tough. I was given five days to ice a team this year, so every kid that come to my training camp made my team.”

Prior to the game on Dec. 6, Craighead spoke about the team’s lack of wins, and the relative meaning of success.

“It’s coming,” he said of the squad’s first win of the season. “The closest one that we had was, it was kind of ironic, because we’re up 4-2 going into the third and I went into the dressing room between periods and everybody was just vibrating, so excited, because they’re so young and they just don’t understand the whole scenario they got caught up in here, unfortunately. I feel really bad for these kids. Like, that’s my main thing about the whole scenario, about the kids that have come in here. They’re getting involved in a situation that they have nothing to do with, they just want to play hockey and be a part of something special.

“It was tough recruiting, very tough, trust me,” Craighead added, without missing a beat. “You have a team that’s won less than a handful of games in three years and you want to sit down with a parent to say, ‘You know, I’d love for your son to bring his talent to our organization and we have an opportunity to develop them and give them an opportunity.’ Well, for someone that’s looking on the outside, they’re probably thinking, ‘Geez, what are you going to have to offer my son? You guys haven’t won a game in three years,’ whatever it was. So I just had to sit down and just open up and show them who I am, where I come from and what I have to offer, let him make the decision, and every one of them signed. So I have to hold good on my word with these guys and stick true to them. If you don’t want to leave, you won’t be traded, and the only moves that we’ve ever made is someone that’s maybe a little bit older who wanted to go to a team with a chance to win, or whatever. We’re rebuilding here, and that’s what’s done sometimes.”

• RELATED STORY: Surrey Knights end two-year winless streak, from November 2017.

Following their win over the Whalers on Dec. 6, the Knights have lost four in a row, by scores of 4-1 to Ridge Meadows Flames, 3-0 to Aldergrove Kodiaks, 17-2 to Abbotsford Pilots and 7-2 to Mission City Outlaws. Up next for the squad is a home game Thursday (Dec. 20) against Grandview Steelers, followed by another game against the Flames Saturday night (Dec. 22) in Maple Ridge.

“For us it’s not all about the wins and losses,” Craighead insisted. “You listen to my dressing room between periods, before and after games, and they’re happy. At the end of the day, as long as you’re having fun, it’s a win. It wasn’t fun for awhile there, with me in limbo and everything else in limbo here. It dragged on for long enough. Good to God’s grace, it all came to light and the right thing was done. We’ll win our fair share of hockey games, we’re excited.”

Next season, the Knights are looking to move into the new North Surrey Sport & Ice Complex, under construction at 12780 110th Avenue, south of Scott Road Skytrain station and the Home Depot store. The arena will include three sheets of ice.

“We’re not yet guaranteed to get the new building, but we are Surrey’s team, and we know we’ll be moved out of this building,” Craighead said. “We’re on the list, and anybody can apply, it’s a community building, but I have a good feeling. We’ve paid our dues and went through a lot of adversity. We’re helping people, and that’s my background. We’re looking forward to the future. All this other stuff is behind us now, and that’s why I’ve refused to talk to the media about this, and you’re the first I’ve talked to in three years. It’s time to move on.”



tom.zillich@surreynowleader.com

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Surrey Knights players celebrate a goal during the PJHL team’s season-opening game at North Surrey Recreation Centre. (File photo: Tom Zillich)

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