By Christian Stewart/ISN
As the final stretch of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League season nears, it’s a great time to reflect on the paths of ex-Saanich Braves.
A great many VIJHL players used the league as a developmental stepping stone to the next level of their hockey careers, be it at the Junior A and major junior level, college and university, or pro.
The most notable example at the moment being Matt Irwin of the San Jose Sharks and Adam Cracknell of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who both donned the red, white and black of the Saanich Braves.
The VIJHL has gained a great reputation over the past 10 years as a superb developmental league for players and in that regard, the Braves are one of the top teams in the league at moving players to the next level.
This is thanks to co-owner/GM Norm Kelly and head coach Brad Cook, who take a proactive approach to use their connections in the hockey community to find players who will fit the Braves’ mandate.
Cook is known for his dedication to development and the sacrifices needed to win at the Jr. B level, having long ago said, “While winning championships is nice and what both players and coaches compete for. But I’d rather coach 10 years in this league and not win any (if it meant) I moved five or six players per year on to the next level. I would be satisfied with that kind of program success.
“When you have that success of moving guys on to the next level, ultimately that’s what we are here for. We are a stepping stone and a development league through and through and that’s what I try and live by. I will never hold a kid back, I want kids to be gone.”
However, it’s a perpetual double-edged sword as moving a player up usually means you lose a quality player from the current roster. Witness the case of Braves forward Nick Guerra, who both last year and this year, split time between the Braves and the Junior A Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL and who recently departed the Braves as the team’s leading scorer to play full-time with the Clippers.
And Guerra’s not the only Brave on this year’s roster to have spent time at the Junior A level, including Hunter Atchison (Trail Smoke Eaters) and Connor Birmingham (Chilliwack Chiefs). In fact, Seamus Maguire recently returned to the Braves after spending all of last season and the first part of this season with the Junior A Flin Flon Bombers in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
As to former Braves enjoying success at the next level, one need not look too far back to see a long list of Braves now playing at the Junior A or college level.
Jake Daughtry (2013-2014) is now seeing regular ice time at the University of Central Oklahoma, and is skating along fellow Braves alumni Chad Roorda (2011-2013), Trevor Yee (2008-2010) and Gaven Hohl (2009-2010).
The 2012-2013 season was a particularly strong class of graduating Braves. Leading the charge was 2012-2013 captain and former VIJHL MVP Ty Jones, who is now at the University of Oklahoma. Sam Johnston and Justin Polischuck are in their second year with the Adrian College Bulldogs (Michigan) in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA). Defenceman Brandon Parmar – older brother of current Braves forward Jordan – played a season for the University of Victoria in the B.C. Intercollegiate Hockey Association. Cole Golka went on to play Junior A with the LaRonge Ice Wolves (SJHL) and is now leading scorer with the Junior A Dryden Ice Dogs in Ontario’s Superior International Junior Hockey League.
Locally, Shawn McBride and Kevin Massy are key members of the Victoria Grizzlies in the BCHL, looking to secure college scholarships down the road.
McBride is also captain of this year’s Grizzlies squad.
Speaking of local, post-VIJHL life has been good for Braves graduates Jack Palmer and Wade Murphy. Palmer, who finished second to Jones in team scoring in 2011-2012 (and won the VIJHL Rookie of the Year award) went on to play two seasons for the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League (WHL) before being traded to the Victoria Royals where he is a dependable centre.
Murphy, who patrolled the ice at Pearkes arena in 2009-2010, went on to play for the Victoria Grizzlies and Penticton Vees in the BCHL, winning the RBC Jr. A national championship, and now skates for the storied University of North Dakota in the NCAA. In 2013, Murphy was selected 185th overall by the Nashville Predators in the NHL Entry Draft.
The Braves are in action Thursday against the Peninsula Panthers, 6 p.m. at Panorama, and are at home to the Nanaimo Buccaneers Friday, Jan. 2, with a 6:30 p.m. start at Pearkes Arena.
– Christian J. Stewart is a Saanich-based communications professional and contributing editor and photographer with Independent Sports News.