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Veteran-stacked Spruce Kings start BCHL season tonight in Merritt

Fifteen players returning from successful spring season as Chilliwack pod champions
13 Spruce Kings win Chilliwack pod May 9 2021
The Prince George Spruce Kings celebrate winning the BCHL's Chilliwack pod title May 13, 2021 in their dressing room in Chilliwack. The Kings have 15 players back from that team as they embark on the 2021-22 season, which starts tonight in Merritt.

The Prince George Spruce Kings are back in business, almost as usual.

The 60th anniversary B.C. Hockey League season starts tonight with the Spruce Kings heading into their 26th year as BCHL members on the road in Merritt against the Centennials.

They’ll be back home on the range next weekend for a doubleheader home-opener against the Cents in front of a Rolling Mix Concrete Arena crowd again, an element of junior hockey no BCHL team got to experience last spring in the pod season, when fans were banned from the rinks to minimize the risk of COVID infections. Until provincial health orders change, teams will be limited to half-capacity and that means no more than 875 tickets will be sold for games at Rolling Mix.

The Spruce Kings went 2-1-1-0-0 in the exhibition season, which wrapped up Sunday with a 4-0 win over the Cents. They’ll also visit West Kelowna on Saturday.

Fifteen returning players are back from the Kings’ team that captured the 20-game Chilliwack pod title with a 14-5-0-1-0 record. Because of the pandemic which cancelled playoffs the past two seasons, the Spruce Kings are the last team to be crowned Fred Page Cup BCHL champions and they enter the season as three-time defending champs.

“There is an advantage with having a lot of guys return in terms of how we do things and the structure we play with and just overall chemistry,” said Kings head coach Alex Evin.

Captain Kolton Cousins heads up the veteran crew of returning forwards that includes proven point-producers C John Herrington, C Rowan Miller, RW Nick Rheaume and LW Simon Labelle. RW Kilian McGregor-Bennett, who joined the Spruce Kings last season after three years at Delta Hockey Academy, is poised for a breakout BCHL season. He picked up just one goal in the 13 games in the pod but scored a team-leading three goals in the preseason and the 18-year-old White Rock native has a great shot and passing skills that will draw the attention of college scouts.

LW Linden Makow of Vanderhoof also showed flashes of brilliance in the preseason and he and C Max Borovinsky are returning as 17 year olds. The new faces up front are Austin Fraser (Coquitlam, BCHL), Evan Fedele, Ty Gagno, Jag Phangura, Evan Fedele and Illinois native Jimmy Doyle.

“We’re a really hard-working team,” said Labelle. “We have skill, but the biggest thing is just that we’re hardworking , so the fans need to expect a  hard-working group with skill to back it up. We have a good team here with a chance to make it far. We’re an older team with a lot of experience so we know what we’re doing.”

Jordan Fairlie and Aaron Trotter combined to form the BCHL’s top goaltending tandem in the spring season and there’s no reason to think they won’t be even stingier over the course of a full 54-game season.

“Those guys work really hard, they’re amazing teammates and they’re doing quite well out there so far so hopefully they can keep it up and push each other for icetime,” said Evin.

Colton Camron, Ben LeFranc, Connor Elliott, Josh Wright and Amran Bhabra are back for another season on the Prince George blueline. The additions of Brody Gagno (trade from Chilliwack), Ian Kern (trade from Powell River) and QMJHL veteran Dylan Schives have shored up the defence, with mainstays Mason Waite and Tanner Main graduated to the college ranks.

Five 20-year-olds, including Cousins, Miller, Wright, Schives and Trotter will be playing their final junior season in Prince George. Five Kings - Herrington (Lake Superior State), Labelle (Colgate University), Doyle (St. Lawrence University), Rheaume (UMass-Lowell) and Brody Gagno (Quinnipiac) – have already committed to NCAA college teams.

This is Evin’s third season as head coach and his associate, Lukas Lomicky, is back for a second BCHL season. Also on board the bus this weekend is Mitchell Karapita, the Spruce Kings’ new trainer, Mitchell Karapita.

After six seasons in the Greater Vancouver-based Mainland Division, the Spruce Kings are back in the Interior Conference as part of the BCHL’s realignment to create two conferences. Fans at RMCA will get a chance to see the Cranbrook Bucks for the first time in a three-game set, Dec. 9-11. The Bucks joined the league as an expansion team last season.

The Kings will host just five teams from the Coastal Conference – Coquitlam (Nov. 13), Chilliwack (Nov. 26) Nanaimo (Nov. 27), Surrey (Jan. 28) and Langley (Jan. 29). The season ends March 19 at RMCA with a date with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.

“It’s a really good conference this year with a lot of good teams that play a little more freely offensively than others,” said Evin.. “We’ll just focus on our game and our identity, but I think we match up well, so I’m definitely excited for the challenge.”