While a quicker exit that planned, the Bucks are already looking forward to the next season after laying a foundation of expectations this year. Trevor Crawley photo.

Cranbrook Bucks hockey ops, players reflect on BCHL season

While it may not be accurate to say the first inaugural season wrapped up for the Cranbrook Bucks, it certainly feels like it.

That’s not to disrespect the BCHL and franchises who moved mountains in order to have an abbreviated season in hub cities at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

However, it’s safe to say the excitement of junior hockey has returned to the Cranbrook, as the Bucks drew a electric crowd of 3,000 to Western Financial Place in their series-ending loss against the Prince George Spruce Kings on Saturday night.

“I think our league and our franchise did a very good job of navigating those turbulent waters and making sure that the players got to play and that obviously this year, our fans got to experience what we wanted them to experience here,” said Nathan Lieuwen, Bucks majority owner. “That’s all capped off by Saturday night when you finally have that 3,000 crowd here and everyone’s bought into what we’re doing.”

Over the course of the regular season, the Bucks earned a winning record at 29-20-2-3, and was in a three-way tie for third-most home wins in the Interior Conference. Indeed, the BCHL’s newest franchise is second in league attendance, averaging home game crowds of 2,195, according to numbers tracked by www.hockeydb.com.

For Ryan Donald, the Bucks General Manager and Head Coach, it was a season of highlights, both at home engaging with and growing the fanbase, but also while out on the road, challenging other clubs in their own territory.

“There was a lot,” Donald said. “Getting some wins on the road in some different buildings was a lot of fun. Obviously getting back in front of our fans at home was a great experience for our players as well, then getting a chance to do so in the playoffs. Certainly, to get into Saturday night, getting to play in Game 6 and seeing what that environment can feel like is something we’re excited to have moving forward.”

For the players, there are five who are now aging out of junior hockey, however, most of the team will be back for next year’s campaign.

Captain Rhys Bentham, who recently committed to Yale — where Donald previously coached for five years — will return for another season before heading off to the United States for NCAA hockey.

“We had a really good locker room this year, so it wasn’t very hard, the guys are all great leaders around the room and I got a lot of support and help from my teammates, so I couldn’t have done it without them,” said Bentham, on taking on the captaincy mantle.

“It’s pretty special to have that on my jersey…but we had a lot of leaders in this room, it wasn’t just the guys wearing letters, he had a lot of guys stepping up and making a difference in the room.”

As pandemic restrictions lifted, the team got the chance to experience a fan atmosphere that was tough to create in light of the public health orders.

“It was pretty crazy,” Bentham said. “…coming out and seeing over 3,000 fans on Saturday night was a pretty big surprise. Calmed the nerves a bit once I got out there, but it was a lot of fun. The fans are great here and just the whole year, overall, I had a lot of fun.”

In terms of team boxscore leaders, Tyson Dyck was in front of the herd, with 34 goals and 41 assists in 54 games. Noah Quinn followed up with 26 goals and 29 assists in 53 contests.

Bentham was the top scoring defenceman with one goal and 22 helpers, while Nathan Airey had the lions share of the starts in net, with 20 wins in 39 games and a 0.911 save percentage.

Hockey operations will have a brief reprieve, but there will be a spring camp and ongoing off-season recruiting efforts while looking ahead to the next season.

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