After a slow start to last season, the Saanich Braves believe the rebuild is over, and the team is set to hit the ground running.
That sentiment was echoed from coach to captain as Braves’ training camp kicked off particularly late, Monday afternoon (Aug. 31) at Pearkes Arena.
The Braves start the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League season with a home-and-home series versus the Peninsula Panthers. Game 1 goes tonight, 7:30 p.m. at Panorama Centre, followed by the Braves home opener, a rare Saturday night game at Pearkes, 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.
With a roster built around a core of third-year Braves, only a handful of tryouts have been invited to compete for the few coveted spots on this year’s roster.
“It’s a late start to training camp but I don’t feel a need to carry a massive training camp,” said coach Brad Cook.
The coach also said the team is finally at the end of a rebuild that took 18 months. It dates back to the 2012-13 season, when the team finished second overall and was built around league-MVP Tyler Jones, only to lose him in the first round.
“People don’t realize, it takes longer than you expect,” Cook said. “We started clicking in January last year and finished strong.”
New captain Jack Rachwalski has been part of the rebuild and is ready to move into the win column for his final season in junior.
Last season the Braves went without a win in the first 10 games, but then managed to move up the standings with 17 wins over the 48-game season. It was enough to pass the Kerry Park Islanders and finish third in the competitive South Division behind the Westshore Wolves (29 wins) and Victoria Cougars (42 wins).
It was the Wolves who eventually undid the Braves in the first round of the playoffs. The best-of-seven series ended with four straight overtime games.
“That was tough to swallow, but it’s only motivation to put together a strong start,” Rachwalski added.
“We deserve it. The kids have been patient,” he said.
Cook added that choosing Rachwalski was a no-brainer.
The 19-year-old is in his final year of junior, one of six Braves already committed for their 20-year-old season.
“Rachwalski’s always been a character kid, he’s always been the kind to lead by example, a respectful kid who’s a sponge, easy to coach and the hardest worker out there,” Cook said. “He’s pretty much the epitome of our culture.”
As it goes with junior B, a few Braves will start the season away, including Evan Horvath, who was released from the BCHL Coquitlam Express earlier this week and is now off to Weyburn, Sask., in search of a junior A spot.
Should he return, Horvath will once again wear an A as assistant captain. So will Landon Walters, one of two 20-year-old defencemen acquired by Cook for this year. Walters comes from Campbell River and Quinlan Moore from Nanaimo.
Both goalies, Brandon Ward and Riley Mathieson, are coming back, though Cook expects to lose Mathieson, who is pursuing the next level.
Younger players, such as Drew Coughlin and Shawn Strange, are showing well at BCHL and Western Hockey League tryouts. Strange, a Saanich minor player only 15 years old, made it to main camp for the Kamloops Blazers. He will earn some affiliate playing time with the Braves this year though he could end up jumping right into the lineup.
It’s the strong group of returning players, and an “outstanding” coaching staff, that have Cook looking forward to 2015-16.
Former goalie Bowman Rutledge comes back as an assistant coach and goalie coach. “He’s a guy that’s been there and done it, one of the hardest working.”
Sam McMullen, a five-year-veteran of the league, returns as an assistant coach and video coach after putting up 100 points for the Cougars last year. Former Victoria Salsa and NCAA Div. 1 player Shawn Weaver will come on as an assistant coach and strength and conditioning coach.
“This year should be a fun year,” Rachwalski said.