When Cody Schiavon walked through the door of South Surrey Arena for Day 1 of Surrey Eagles’ training camp last August, you could forgive him for wishing that his teammates were wearing name tags.
After all, Schiavon – who was named team captain earlier that summer – was one of just three returning players from last year’s team, alongside forwards Holden Katzalay and Brandon Santa Juana. The team’s head coach, Cam Keith, was new, too.
“The first day or two, there’s a little bit of, ‘Oh, I can’t remember that guy’s name’ just because there’s so many new faces all at once, but after that, it’s fine. It just took a couple days, at most,” said the 19-year-old Schiavon, who is in his third year in the BC Hockey League.
“There’s always new faces coming in throughout the season, with trades or affiliate players coming in, that sort of thing, so it’s not too (unusual) having a lot of new faces, but having it all at once was a bit different.”
The roster overhaul was by design, Keith told Peace Arch News during training camp, and was necessary considering last year’s team won just 13 games and finished in the basement of the league.
“With the unfortunate season we had last year, we have to sort of rebuild certain areas,” he said at the time.
Now, that almost-all-new squad has just passed the quarter-pole of the 58-game season, and though their record isn’t quite what Keith hoped it would be – the team is last in the Mainland Division with five wins in 16 games – both he and his captain see signs that the ship is pointed in the right direction.
“Our expectations were to be around a .500 hockey club at the quarter mark, but the way we’ve been playing isn’t (poor),” Keith said.”We’ve had some unlucky bounces at times, we’ve showed our inexperience at times, but we’re in every game and competing… We haven’t had that killer instinct at times and we haven’t always scored when we need to score in order to put teams away, but it’s coming.
“We went this direction knowing there would be some early struggles, with some many guys who have to get acclimatized to the league and understand how much competing has to take place. Every shift, every period, you can’t take any time off. And when we do take those shifts off, it really shows. But the pieces are there.”
Keith added that the team is much improved from Day 1 – “It’s night and day,” he said – and Schiavon said he’s noticed a difference, too, as the team learns how to play with each other on the ice, while also bonding off it.
“It can be tough at first, but I think we’re really starting to gel together as a group. Everyone is getting used to each other by now, and we’re starting to play some pretty good hockey,” he said.
As captain, Schiavon, along with the team’s few other veterans – such as Katzalay, who joined the Eagles midway through last year from the Western Hockey League – said he did he best to bring the new players together, though most of it happened organically once players began arriving in town in the days prior to the season.
“I didn’t try to think about it too much. The people we have here, they’re all good people so it wasn’t too hard to bring everybody together,” he said.
“Basically, I just let guys know when there would be a skate before camp (officially began). We had a few captain’s practices before camp, just to get out on the ice together, and it wasn’t awkward at all with the new (players).
Whether new this year or not, one thing most of the players do have in common is that they are not originally from the Surrey area. As opposed to some years where the local content is high – with the high-water mark being 2014, when team brass made a concerted effort to ice local talent and ended up with 14 Semiahmoo, Surrey and Cloverdale players on its opening-night roster – this year’s team has just one –rookie forward Buddy Johnson, who is from White Rock.
Other players home towns include L’Ile-Bizard, Que. (Thomas Scarfone); Calgary (Carter King); Denver, Co. (Wyatt Schlaht); Suwanee, Ga. (J.J. Fectau) and Fishkill, N.Y. (Kenny Riddett).
“Everyone is in an unfamiliar spot. Me, being here for a few years, I’m a bit more familiar with things than others, but some guys are billeting for the first time, guys are moving to Surrey for the first time, it’s really neat to see guys come together, explore a new city because they’re all so new to it,” said Schiavon, who is from Kelowna.
Keith is no stranger to the nomadic life of a hockey player, himself. His coaching career has taken him from Cincinnati to Trail to Chilliwack and now South Surrey, and in his playing days, the 38-year-old suited up in Victoria, Alaska (twice), Pensacola, Fla., Peoria, Ill., Arizona and Germany.
With that history in mind, the first-year Eagles coach is trying to establish a comfortable, winning atmosphere for the host of new players.
“We’re trying to establish a new culture with the older guys and younger, newer guys all at once, and it’s a big challenge,” he explained.
“It’s a very big task but they’ve all taken to it well. Our young guys are getting better every game. The experienced guys have kind of taken the reins and the younger guys are following suit.
“It’s been exciting to watch. We have a lot of skill, and I think anyone who sees these guys play says that this is a good hockey club. It just takes a little time.”