It may be summer, but there’s still some hockey talk left to chew over.
While the Cranbrook Bucks’ BCHL playoff run ended sooner than everyone would have liked, the team is fully into the off-season routine of preparing for the next campaign, both on and off the ice.
The Herd finished off the post-season with a tight six-game series against the Wenatchee Wild, after finding regular season success that culminated with a 36-14-1-3 record, good for second place in the Interior Conference and third overall in the league.
Bucks owner Nathan Lieuwen lauded the club’s success, both on and off the ice, during a recent interview with the Cranbrook Townsman.
“I thought it went very well. It just feels like, as a franchise, we’re starting to become comfortable with all the things that we do, whether it’s off ice, on the ice…our identity is starting to create itself and I’m very proud of that,” Lieuwen said.
The Bucks boasted the third-highest BCHL attendance over the season, averaging just over 2,300 fans per game.
“Off the ice, the fan support, the sponsor support was great. The feedback we got from fans was fantastic. Obviously Ryan did a great job with his team and we had a really successful season and I think you’re starting to see a few things come together and hopefully we can continue that into the future.”
With a bench led by Ryan Donald, Head Coach and General Manager, the Bucks had a mid-season surge, winning nearly a dozen games in a row that catapulted the team towards the top of the Interior Conference in the latter half of the year.
“I felt like, overall, I thought it was a successful year for us in a lot of different ways, one that ended earlier than we certainly would’ve liked with the group we had, but was proud of the kids that we had in this room and the young men that emerged from our program,” Donald said.
There will be some roster turnover, as some of the 20-year-olds age out, including Rhys Bentham, Bauer Morrissey, Matthew Duarte and Jeremy Tremblay. Others such as goaltender Nathan Airey are off to college hockey; in Airey’s case, with the University of Minnesota’s Gopher program.
For some season stats, much of the scoring was done by committee.
Noah Quinn was team’s points leader at 49 (21G, 28A), while Jack Silich and Donovan Frias were tied in goal production at 24 apiece. Captain Rhys Bentham led scoring for the defensive corps, with 13 goals and 25 assists for 38 points.
Goaltender Nathan Airey had the lions share of the starts, posting a 2.44 goals against average and a 0.925 save percentage in 36 games, picking up wins in 23 of those contests.
Recruitment impacts on BCHL split
The BCHL recently made headlines, as the league announced it will be going independent from the Hockey Canada umbrella, which has major implications on player development and recruitment.
On the impacts to player recruitment, Lieuwen deferred to Donald, however, he leaned into a focus on the player experience.
“I’m in favour of things that are player-first, and give players options and ultimately my responsibility is to do what’s right for the players, our fans and our community,” Lieuwen said. “I think that from everything I’ve seen and everything that’s unfolded in the last few weeks, I’d say we’re doing that and I’m very proud of the direction and the player-focused nature of our league and the way that we support our community.”
On the recruitment side of things, Donald recognized the team’s strength on defence and in goal this past season, noting there will be a different look next year as some of the current squad moves on.
The league split from Hockey Canada also widens the recruitment pool.
“There’s been some unique changes with our league announcing we’re going to be independent for this coming season, which allows us to do some unique things and add some players from different age categories, different provinces, different countries even,” Donald said.
“I would expect the league as a whole to look slightly different than it has in the past and I think we will be no different, trying to add some pieces, fill in some of those holes who are moving on for different reasons.”
The Bucks have already announced a slew of commitments, including players close to home and abroad, even as far away as Sweden, as D Loke Södergren has pledged to come to the Key City after playing for a junior league in his home country last year.
The Cranbrook Bucks captured three BCHL awards this past season, as Donald was named Coach of the Year; Nathan Airey was recognized with Goaltender of the Year; and Lieuwen was presented with Executive of the Year at an off-season annual general meeting.
Lieuwen acknowledged the executive award reflects on the entire organization.
“The first thing I said when I got the Executive of the Year award, is that this is a franchise award,” Lieuwen said. “This is for how good our franchise is doing, it’s not just me, it’s not just Ryan, it’s everybody. I think…the identity of who we are and what we’re about — these people bought into that. Ryan’s line with that, Nathan Airey was in line with that and these people are going to start to see success when we do things the right way.
“I’ve been very proud to be around so many people who have bought into that.”
Donald concurred, noting the alignment between ownership, hockey operations and the players while reflecting on his Coach of the Year nod.
“I’ve said it from day one, I’m very fortunate to work for really good people and in a great community, to have good kids in your building and be able to work for people that you’re aligned with makes it easy,” Donald said. “So it’s by no means an individual award.”
Class is in session
The Kootenay Hockey Academy is a major project that Lieuwen has been working to get up and running ever since the Bucks expansion franchise was announced.
Lieuwen noted that every year, young hockey players leave the Cranbrook and Kimberley area to pursue high-performance or academy programs outside of the region, which can be tough on families, while also carrying economic and social impacts.
“We’ve been working on an academy project for quite some time to try to rectify that and it’s all come together with this JPHL program,” Lieuwen said. “It’s been hard work recruiting over the last couple of months and we’re kind of getting to a point now where we’ve got this program that’s going to come in, in the fall, and it’s going to be a full-time, big undertaking, but I think it’s going to be a really good thing for our community.
The KHA will be operating within the fold of the Junior Prospects Hockey League, with corresponding academy programs across Western Canada. The program will partner with the Kootenay Christian Academy for academics in the morning, and on-ice and hockey training in the afternoon.
The hockey program is headed up by Ryan Carlson, who came out of Manitoba’s Jr. A league as an assistant coach, with a playing career that includes stops with the ECHL with Norfolk and Reading, USports at the Univ. of Manitoba, NCAA at Univ. of Wisconsin-Superior and Junior A Hockey in Steinbach, Manitoba.
The academy has already announced a number of Cranbrook players signing onto the program for the next fall season.
While Donald will have his hands full with the BCHL Bucks, there will be some overlap over time as the academy program gets going.
“We’re sharing facilities, we’re going to be around it a lot and with the new makeup of our league, that’s going to be our primary area to affiliate players…so those are the players that would be able to kind of move up and down and take advantage of some affiliate games and opportunities,” Donald said.
“As we piece this whole thing together, there’s definitely going to be some overlap. I think think if we fast forward into the not-so-distant future — three to five years — we’d like to see that growing into more of a feeder system for us where we’re having our hands on some of those players and growing them and developing them and being able to elevate them into our program over time.”
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