VIJHL preview of Cougars, Braves and Wolves

Island League junior B hockey season begins this week

South division forward Tommy Kala (now an assistant coach with the Victoria Cougars) protects the puck from Brett Powell of the Comox Valley Glacier Kings) during the 2010 all-star game.

Brian Burke can say whatever he wants, and often does. But when the esteemed general manager of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs told Victoria Cougars owner Gary Boyer about the growing reputation of junior B hockey, the fact is, he didn’t need to.

It was during the Abbotsford-hosted Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial championship in March that Boyer ran into Burke in the lobby of an Abbotsford hotel. Burke was there to watch the AHL playoff series between the Abbotsford Heatand the Leafs’ farm club, the Toronto Marlies.

“(Burke) wanted to know who our team was, he said, ‘junior B in B.C. is the best in Canada and your drawing the attention of the NCAA,’” Boyer said.

It’s an easy thing to say, sure, but it also doesn’t come as a surprise.

The Cougars are sending five players to college this fall from the 2011-12 team. Three to the NCAA, and two to the B.C. Intercollegiate Hockey League. Defenceman Kurtis Kunz, who is actually from Utah, is going to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, an NCAA Div. 1 program.

Making the jump to Div. 1 from junior B is pretty rare, but it’s starting to happne, Boyer said.

The other Cougars going to the NCAA are Colin Minardi to Finlandia University in Michigan, a Div. III program, and Josh Wyatt, who committed to Weber State University, in Utah, a Div. II team. Going to the BCIHL are Connor Stephens to Selkirk College and Steve Axford to Okanagan College.

It’s not first set of Cougars to go directly to the NCAA, as Jimmy Carter and Jordan Zalba had previously made the jump.

“Every year we make the promise to our players to do everything we can to help them with post-secondary and junior A aspirations,” coach Mark Van Helvoirt said.

“We want to get our younger kids up to the junior A level as soon as possible, but there’s older kids, and we want them to be motivated too.”

To help the 19 and 20 year olds, Van Helvoirt and staff create video packages of the players and ship them off to prospective schools at year end.

“The difference is, this year we had schools pursuing us, and had scholarships waiting. It’s also becoming easier to move players on due to the fact our previous players are doing a good job.”

Cougars the team to beat

With high-scoring captain Brody Coulter returning, the Victoria Cougars are the early favourites once again.

The champs are coming off a dominating season in which the team was first in the regular season and won the Brent Patterson Memorial playoff trophy.

But the Cougars also lost the provincial trophy on a flukey goal in overtime, which was just a few months ago, so motivation shouldn’t be a question mark. Neither is their leadership, under coach-of-the-year winner Mark Van Helvoirt.

The Cougars did move five players from last year’s championship team to college this season, however, and more are hoping for junior A spots. But its all merely a matter of rebuilding around a core that is mostly there. The defence will closely resemble that of last year’s, while newcomer Garrett Brandsma scored 39 points in 39 games as an 18-year-old with the Comox Valley Glacier Kings last year.

Wolves will bring bite

As the curtain draws back this week to reveal  the Westshore Wolves, there will be a few surprises.

The Wolves may not set the league on fire in its first season, but make no mistake – this is not the West Shore’s previous club, the Westshore Stingers.

Wolves ownership has sold the idea of a clean break from the get-go, and now with head coach and general manager Victor Gervais in place, the Wolves are ready to walk the walk.

Gervais led a long career in the pros before he enjoyed plenty of success handling the GM and coaching duties for the junior A Victoria Grizzlies in the B.C. Hockey League the past four seasons. And though Gervais never made the NHL, he crossed paths with plenty of NHL greats. During his journey in the minors, Gervais was on teams with future NHL coaches including Barry Trotz (Nashville Predators) and Joel Quenneville (Chicago Blackhawks), among others.

In short, the transition period for Gervais’ Wolves will be no different than any other team finding its chemistry in the early going. Add to that, Gervais has been a regular attendee at junior B games the last few years, and knows the league. He’s acquired a core of veterans from around the league and top prospects out of midget, which the Stingers never did.

The Braves are back

Last year the Braves got something the team was desperately missing – a star.

It had been several years since the Braves had a scorer who topped 25 points when Ty Jones returned to captain the club. Jones scored 75 points in 34 games. He won the league MVP, shared the scoring title with Steven Axford and carried the team to its best playoff run in the recent era.

The Braves may have suffered a crushing semifinal loss to the Peninsula Panthers, but with Jones coming back, the team is riding high as a premier club in the league. Add to that the likely WHL promotion of Jack Palmer, who won the league’s rookie of the year award, and coach Brad Cook has a brand he can sell to future players.

 

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