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Spruce Kings look to be vastly improved next season

Summer recruitment crucial to rebuild team that finished last in BCHL Interior Conference
The six graduating Spruce Kings gathered for a photo after their season ended April 3 with a playoff loss to the Penticton Vees at Kopar Memorial Arena. From left are Kilian McGregor-Bennett, Kai Greaves, JR Perdion, Alexis Cournoyer, Amran Bhabra and Ben LeFranc.

After completing one of their worst-ever seasons in 28 years as part of the B.C. Hockey League, the Prince George Spruce Kings are going back to the drawing board.

The team struggled all season putting wins together and their 18-35-3-0 eighth-place record is a sign that there’s much work to be done to rebuild the Spruce Kings to the gold standard that brought them their first BCHL championship in 2019.

The Kings’ season ended April 3rd in a 3-2 loss at Kopar Memorial Arena to the two-time-defending champion Penticton Vees as they swept Prince George in a four-game opening-round series.

Factoring in the two non-playoff years in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic, the Vees are the only team to hoist the Fred Page Cup since the Spruce Kings did it five years ago, after being league finalists in 2018.

Those glory years are not so distant memories for Kings fans, who have come to expect their team to be capable of beating any opponent on any given night.

This season they clearly were not.

The Kings struggled to score goals with the league’s third-lowest scoring team and their goaltending woes resulted in a revolving door of candidates for the starting job, none of whom seized the opportunity with any authority. Kings GM Mike Hawes says the team needs to get better in every position.

“We knew we were going to be young and a bit inexperienced and we knew we’d take our lumps a little bit, maybe not as bad as we ended up doing in the regular season,” said Hawes.

“Our expectations are always higher than how we finished, it was definitely disappointing, not the way we drew it up. We’ll reload and try it again next year.”

The Kings lose six 2003-born players to graduation, including defenceman Kai Greaves, Amran Bhabra and Ben LeFranc, and forwards Kilian McGregor-Bennett, JR Perdion and Alexis Cournoyer.

“Fortunate for us, we have 19 guys eligible to return,” said Hawes. “Nineteen guys won’t return but it’s nice to have that many eligible and we’ll sit down with the coaches and decide which direction we’ll go.

“We need to add more skill, more scoring, more depth,” he said. “We need to play better in net and we need more size and more speed, the recruiting is going to be ultra-important this summer.

“What’s nice is there are a bunch of those returning guys we’re thrilled to have back next year and with a year of experience under their belt they’re only going to be that much better next year.”

Hawes knows the challenges of trying to build a championship-calibre team and the task of attracting top player talent is even more difficult now that the BCHL has absorbed five of the upper-echelon teams from the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

“The league got better, not only with the addition of those five really good teams in Alberta, but just the fact we went independent changed the landscape of recruiting and everything else,” said Hawes.

“In my 20 years in the league, this season was the most skilled and best quality of players that I’ve seen in the league. That’s a credit to the league and the job everybody’s done to have this evolve.

“We, as an organization, have to adapt to that and figure out a way to be successful within that landscape. We have to put more resources towards scouting and identifying players that can come in here and help us be successful.”

Brooks Bandits, Sherwood Park Crusaders, Blackfalds Bulldogs, Spruce Grove Saints and Okotoks Oilers competed in the AJHL until late January, when it was leaked that they planned to defect to the BCHL next season.

The AJHL responded by suspending the five teams for the rest of their season and in February they began competing among themselves to finish out the regular season.

The playoff winner will face the BCHL champion in the Rocky Mountain Challenge playoff, a best-of-three series to be played May 31-June 2 at the home of the Alberta champion.

The five Alberta teams will be full-fledged members of what will be a 21-team league next season, with the Merritt Centennials dropping out of the BCHL to join the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League.

Hawes was in Las Vegas last week scouting for the Spruce Kings at the USA Hockey-Chipotle Tier I 16U and 18U National Championships. This week he’s hosting 96 players in the Spruce Kings’ annual spring camp at Kopar Memorial Arena.

Next season will be the second in which the BCHL will operate as an independent league, outside the boundaries of Hockey Canada, having already pulled out of the Canadian Junior Hockey League in 2021, which ruled out BCHL teams from competing for the national junior A championship.

The move to ditch Hockey Canada was made to circumvent recruiting restrictions that prevented BCHL teams from signing under-18 players from outside of B.C. Now it doesn’t matter what province they are from, those U-18 players are free to join BCHL clubs rather than go to the United States to play for a USHL or NAHL team.

BCHL teams are allowed to recruit as many as 10 Americans and two from outside North America. The only other restriction is each team must have at least two players from the Western branch, which includes B.C., Alberta, Yukon and Northwest Territories.

The BCHL is recognized for developing players for U.S. college hockey. There were 404 former BCHL players competing this past season in the NCAA - about one-quarter of the entire makeup of U.S. college teams.

Hawes plans to meet with team president David Keough to discuss restructuring the Spruce Kings organization and one of the topics will focus on the need to hire of a third coach to share the workload with head coach Alex Evin and associate coach Brad Tesink.

“I think we have to change with the times and do what other teams in the league are doing to be successful so some restructuring will be paramount for sure and an important part of the process as we move forward,” said Hawes.

Evin is heading into his eighth season coaching the Kings and third year as head coach. He has one year remaining in his contract and Hawes is not contemplating any coaching changes.

“Alex is an extremely hardworking guy and he isn’t solely responsible for the season we had,” said Hawes, “It’s a team effort and it starts with me and goes down through the coaches and into the players and none of us were good enough. “I’m happy with the job Alex is doing, him and Brad have been tremendous. They’re incredibly hardworking, progressive coaches and I’m happy with the job they’re doing.”