When the Surrey Eagles open training camp next week, the two busiest people in South Surrey Arena may not be a player or coach, but rather the play-by-play announcer tasked with remembering a host of new players, and the equipment manager responsible for stitching those players’ last names on the backs of the uniforms.
Because to suggest there will be a few new faces in the locker room this year is something of an understatement.
All told, just three players from last year’s BC Hockey League team – second-year forward Brandon Santa Juana, 19-year-old Holden Katzalay and new captain Cody Schiavon – are set to return in Eagles colours for the 2019/20 season.
Replacing outgoing players is nothing new in junior hockey – players graduate or move to new teams or leagues every season – but the amount of turnover facing the Eagles is unusually high, new head coach Cam Keith admits.
It’s also by design.
“It’s pretty rare – (this amount of turnover) just doesn’t happen at all, but I’m excited because these are my guys coming in, guys who I’ve recruited,” said the 38-year-old Keith, who was hired by the team in March.
“When I came in, I kind of took the philosophy that I wasn’t going to try to change anybody (who was already here)… I was just going to bring in my own guys who I believe in, and do it that way.”
That philosophy seems to be one shared by the team’s general manager Blaine Neufeld, who last November – in the wake of former head coach Peter Schaefer’s firing – told Peace Arch News that Schaefer was put in an unenviable position of having to take over the top coaching job just days before training camp, after former coach Brandon West resigned.
“Any coach is going to want months to prepare for a season, and is going to want to recruit the players that you want at an earlier stage than Day 1 of camp, and Peter wasn’t given that opportunity,” Neufeld said at the time. “We tried to adjust (the roster) on the fly and that’s not an easy thing to do in junior hockey.”
The team finished the season with just 13 wins, missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons and went through three head coaches; current assistant Linden Saip finished last year as the interim bench boss.
Change, then, was inevitable this summer, Keith said.
“With the unfortunate season we had last year, we have to sort of rebuild certain areas,” he said.
“I’m excited, because we’ll have a ton of new kids who I think are going to bring a really good energy. There will be no hard feelings from last year, and I think everyone is excited to get started with something new.
“We’re putting the past behind us.”
The new crop of players includes about a dozen coming from hockey academies or the major-midget system, as well as a handful of older players, many of whom arrive from U.S. programs with NCAA scholarships already in tow. Despite their varied backgrounds, Keith said they all have one thing in common – they’re smart hockey players.
“Our philosophy was to recruit players with a high hockey I.Q., and kids who move pucks fast. Not kids who necessarily skate fast, but guys who just move the puck (up the ice) quickly,” Keith explained.
“We want to use our Olympic-sized ice to our advantage, so I went after kids who can read plays as they’re happening and can move the puck quickly.”
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Keith, who is also the associate general manager with the Eagles, joins the team after one year spent as an associate coach with the Chilliwack Chiefs. Prior to that, he spent two seasons as the head coach/GM of the Trail Smoke Eaters and two as an assistant coach with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones.
As a player, he spent three seasons in the BCHL, in Victoria and Trail, before playing four years at the NCAA’s University of Alaska-Fairbanks, followed by a handful of years playing professionally in both North America and Europe.
Even with so many different cities on his hockey resumé – or perhaps because of it – Keith said he preaches patience and stability as a junior-hockey coach. Aside from a few players who have requested trades, he’s never traded a player in-season, he told PAN.
“Stability is my main focus. You want to be a family, and everyone is an important part of it,” he said.
“Even if a kid isn’t playing well, he’s still an important part of it if he’s working hard, so you have to be patient with him and let him find his game, rather than bringing in the unknown.”
Such an approach will be a stark contrast to last year, for example, when the Eagles’ opening-day roster barely resembled the one that finished the season.
“That’ll be different now, I can guarantee you that,” Keith said.
With an eye towards giving his young group – which as of now has no 20-year-olds – time to gel, Keith was hesitant to toss around any wins-and-losses predictions for the coming year, though he said a playoff spot “is achievable.”
“We want to have moderate expectations when it comes to wins and losses, just because we are so young. But we want to be competitive, and you never want to rule anything out, because you just don’t know,” he said.
The team will open training camp on Monday, Aug. 19, and Day 1 will include an intra-squad game that is open to the public. The game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. at South Surrey Arena. Surrey’s official preseason schedule begins Aug. 22, when they travel to Langley to take on the Rivermen. The first home game of the exhibition schedule is Aug. 24 against the Chiefs.
Surrey opens the regular season on the road, with back-to-back games in Prince George from Sept. 6-7. The home-opener is Sept. 13 against Coquitlam.