Looking for your first taste of junior hockey this season?
The Prince George Coliseum is the place to be this week with the Prince George Spruce Kings strutting their stuff in a pair of midweek exhibition games. Kings fans will get to see the Merritt Centennials Wednesday night (7 p.m.), followed on Thursday night by a visit with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
Based on what they showed last season and the quality of the 10 returning players from that team, the Spruce Kings have their sights set high that they will be one of the top teams in the 18-team BCHL once playoffs begin at the end of March.
The Kings finished fourth last season with a 27-15-4-8 record in what perennially ranks as one of the toughest divisions in junior A hockey. It doesn’t get any easier in the Interior Conference with Penticton, West Kelowna, Salmon Arm, Vernon Trail and Cranbrook all in the mix to take a run at the title.
Lessons learned in the playoffs during their seven-game series win over the Cranbrook Bucks and subsequent four-game loss to the Penticton Vees should stir up a few muscle memories that will help sharpen the Spruce Kings, who saw their season end eight wins shy of Fred Page Cup championship.
With just two remaining exhibition games, Kings general manager Mike Hawes has good reason to feel his team will continue to regain some of the ground lost after their 2019 championship run and will go deep into the playoffs next spring.
“At this time of year I either have a little apprehension or feel good about the group and this year I feel really good about the group, to be honest,” said Hawes, about to begin his 12th full season as Spruce Kings GM.
“We do have a good core of returning guys up front, led by John Herrington, Ty Gagno, Killian McGregor-Bennett, Austin Fraser, Evan Fedele and Linden Makow. On the back end we’ll be really strong with the return of Colton Cameron, our captain, it’ll be his fourth season, as will it be for Amran Bhabra, and Ben LeFranc is returning as well. They’ll be leading the way for us.”
The Kings have added a pair of Holy Cross recruits - Jack Stockfish and Dom Murphy – to bolster their forward force. Stockfish, 20, spent the past two seasons with the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the CCHL in his native Ontario and had 50 points in 47 games last year. Murphy, a native of Worcester, Mass., had a 53-point season in 28 games playing high school hockey at St. Mark’s School. RW Jake Schneider of Minnesota, who turns 20 Dec. 24, has committed to Colgate University, coming off a 41-game season in the USHL for the Waterloo Black Hawks. Nineteen-year-old Luke Eurig, a native of Mount Forest, Ont., posted 27 goals and 49 points in 47 games last season for the Elmira Sugar Kings of the GOJHL.
Hawes is also high on C Adam Mendelson of Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, Que., a U.S. high school player who played at Westminster Prep, who he says could emerge as one of the fastest skaters in the league. C Luca Primerano, another in the long line of Burnaby Winter Club alumni recruited by the Spruce Kings, is oozing potential at only 17.
Expect Herrington to be even more productive than he was last season when he averaged a point per game, playing in all 54 games, and ranked second in team scoring. This is the last junior season for the 20-year-old from Hudson’s Hope before he goes off to play college hockey at Lake Superior State.
Herrington will likely centre the top line with McGregor-Bennett, with Schneider on right wing. Another combination to watch for to start the season will have Fraser continuing to be an imposing presence playing right wing on a line with Gagno and Stockfish.
“Alex (coach Evin) is still tinkering with lines but In my opinion I think we have at least nine top-six forwards and it’s going to be nice to have that depth,” said Hawes.
The Kings had the luxury of two capable starting goalies last season with Aaron Trotter and Jordan Fairlie. With Trotter off to the University of St. Thomas, Fairlie has already proved himself worthy of being an everyday goalie in the BCHL, coming off a rookie season in which he posted a 2.01 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and 7-4-0 record with two shutouts. Fairlie’s 19-year-old backup, Aidan Feddema of Bowmanville, Ont., played 36 games for the Grande Prairie Storm last season.
“When you have Jordan Fairlie in net you have to feel confident about that, I think he had one of the best set of numbers in the BCHL last season,” said Hawes.
Anchored by Cameron, a Bentley University recruit who collected 24 points in 54 games, the back end appears to be in capable hands with three other BCHL veterans – LeFranc, Bhabra and Tait Ross wearing the Spruce Kings crown. Ross was added during the off-season from the Surrey Eagles to complete the Brody Gagno trade made on Nov. 29. The Kings have added Montreal native Aleksy Bandu, 18, who played high school hockey in Massachusetts last season at The Governor’s Academy. Charlie Banquier, 20, brings NAHL experience with the Odessa Jackalopes. Luke Schraeder of Kelowna is the other newcomer on defence.
Andrew Shaw, who spent the past three seasons as an associate coach with the Chilliwack Chiefs, takes over from Lukas Lomicky as the new associate coach in Prince George, working with head coach Alex Evin. Nick Drazenovic and Jason Garneau are back as Spruce Kings assistant coaches.
The Spruce Kings will start their 27th BCHL season on the road against the Express in Coquitlam on Friday, Sept. 23, followed by the next night by a date with the Langley Riverman.
The home-opener at the Coliseum is set for Friday, Sept. 30, the first of a two-game set with the Vernon Vipers. That happens on National Truth and Reconciliation Day and will include a tribute to Indigenous residential school survivors. The Kings will be wearing Clayton Gauthier-designed jerseys for the game.
Also on the Spruce Kings’ horizon is the BCHL Roadshow, a two-game series in Burns Lake against the Silverbacks, Feb. 18-19. Complications related to the pandemic scuttled the event that past two years.