Corey Cunningham felt chills running through his spine as the Prince George Spruce Kings hung their championship banners last Friday at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.
It was a monumental evening shared by a crowd of 1,239 to salute what stands as the most successful season in the team's 24-year B.C. Hockey League history.
Cunningham, 18, was one of only two Prince George-born-and-bred players on the team last year (along with winger Craig Cunningham, now playing junior B in Dawson Creek) and that hometown achievement left Cunningham hungry for more.
"It was awesome, it meant the world to me, as it did our city, I think, everybody was pretty excited and it was pretty crazy playing that first game in front of such a big crowd, we really enjoyed it," said Cunningham.
The two weekend games that followed the banner-raising ceremony, back-to-back losses to the Surrey Eagles, were much less memorable from a Kings' perspective but will serve as a learning experience they hope will produce positive points this weekend when the Victoria Grizzlies and Penticton Vees come calling for their one-and-only regular-season visits to Prince George.
"We didn't get the outcome we wanted to, with a new group of guys it's tougher," said Cunningham, who assisted on both Kings' goals in their opening 4-2 loss to Surrey.
He was left off on the scoresheet in Saturday's game - a 4-3 overtime loss to the Eagles. Cunningham is patrolling the left wing on a line with right winger Nolan Welsh and newly-acquired centre Preston Brodziak, a 20-year-old who played last season for the Nanaimo Clippers.
As a BCHL rookie, Cunningham played 47 games last season and collected eight goals and six assists. He caught fire in the playoffs, picking up five goals and 10 points in 17 games leading up to the Kings' Fred Page Cup championship and also contributed a goal and an assist in their six-game Doyle Cup championship win over the Brooks Bandits.
"I got a lot of confidence playing last year on the third line with Welshie and (Lucas) Vanroboys and I just gave it my all every game and we got what we wanted last season," said Cunningham.
"Me and Welshie, we clicked at the end of the season, playing a bunch of playoff games together and I think Brodziak fills Vanroboys' position pretty well. I think we're getting it going right now. It's a pretty fast line and we're an energy line. I think we'll produce this year.
"I expect us to have an above-middle team this year and I hope we can be even higher than that. We want to be the top team back-to-back years, we just have to find a balance and if everybody buys in it will be the same as last year."
Like Cunningham, Welsh amped up his point production last season in the playoffs. After a 20-point regular season he scored four goals and had 12 assists in 17 games in the BCHL playoffs. He also put up two goals and three points in the Doyle Cup series and had four points in the national championship tournament in Brooks, which ended with a 4-3 loss in the final to the host Bandits.
Coming off his shortest off-season ever, all of three months, the 20-year-old Welsh is back for his fourth BCHL season and third with the Spruce Kings since being acquired in a trade from Victoria and this year he's sporting the 'C' as the Kings' captain. He said he'll cherish his memory of seeing the team's first championship banners raised to the roof.
"That was a huge moment, to be able to accomplish that," Welsh said. "When you're older, being able to say you did that is something I'm going to remember the rest of my life."
The Kings, under first-year head coach Alex Evin, outshot the Eagles 33-28 in Saturday's rematch and Welsh thought they played well enough to win.
"Tough games, I thought we got better as the weekend went on," said Welsh. "The first game we didn't start off great, kind of got better in the third period but made some errors and we weren't playing as the team we need to be. In the second game we came together and played the way we're supposed to but made some mistakes again and they put it in the back of the net.
"It's a young team and it takes a lot to learn the systems, let alone how you've got to play in this league. I think it will definitely come and you can see already we're improving a lot, so I'm excited to see what happens. We have lots of skill and everyone is hardworking. We just have to get some experience and we'll have a really good team again."
The Spruce Kings have two tough opponents on their hands this weekend.
The Grizzlies (0-1) are coming off an opening 8-2 loss to Cowichan Valley on Saturday. The Griz were swept last season by Prince George in the Coastal Conference final and will be looking for vengeance when they meet the Kings Friday night.
"Victoria is a fast team and they like to catch you when you're in the o-zone they transition defence to offence in three seconds, so we have to stop that," said Cunningham. "If we bear down on our chances, hang on to pucks down low, don't give the any time and step up on the bluelines, we'll do pretty good. Their d-men like to pinch and we'll get odd-man rushes."
The Vees (2-0), who play the Kings on Saturday, are coming of a pair of wins last weekend in Trail and appear to be the team to beat this season in the Interior Division. They've added Philadelphia Flyer's first-round draft pick Jay O'Brien, a 19-year-old centre selected 19th overall in the NHL draft in June, who left Providence College to join the Vees. Penticton forward Danny Weight, the 18-year-old son of former NHL defenceman Doug Weight, is a Boston College recruit for 2021. He leads the BCHL scoring race with a goal and five assists in two games.
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