Leader of the pack

Max Coyle plays big minutes as a Spruce Kings defenceman and he’s not afraid of a challenge, on or off of the ice

BROOKS, Alta. - Max Coyle has become the Prince George Spruce King player fans of the Brooks Bandits love to hate.

They chant his name in derision when he's on the ice, which in Coyle's case is often. The 21-year-old defenceman played 38 minutes in Thursday's 3-1 loss to the Bandits which clinched first place in the preliminary round for the Alberta champions.

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Coyle has done nothing sinister to draw the ire of the Bandits' bandwagon brigade. He doesn't go looking for trouble, even though he's probably the strongest and toughest guy out there wearing a crown on his jersey.

Coyle knows he can't help his team if he's stewing in the penalty box. He's got himself and his teammates focused on winning the national junior A hockey championship and the Kings are getting close, just two wins away from the ultimate prize.

Coyle has been the warrior on the Prince George blueline. Coach Adam Maglio uses him in all situations as a shutdown d-man and he's also showed his offensive upside when it matters most in the playoffs. He's already matched the 18 points he accumulated in 56 regular season games and now has four goals and 15 assists for 19 points in 27 playoff games.

Two of those helpers came this week in the national tournament, which pushed the Kings to a 3-1 record with a chance to advance to the final if they defeat the Oakville Blades in a semifinal game Saturday night (6 p.m. PT).

Coyle is the vocal leader of the pack. He'll yell out instructions to his teammates on the ice before a face-off to make sure they know what they have to do on a set play and when they need a bit of a boost on the bench, Coyle is not afraid to speak up.

He goes that extra mile to look out for his Spruce King brothers. Like when he jumped off the bench to hug 15-year-old Fin Williams after he scored his first B.C. Hockey League goal in the playoffs against Victoria.

It's the little things like that which make Coyle the natural-born leader he is.

Like when Coyle saw vertically-challenged defenceman Nick Bochen, all of five-foot-nine, struggling as the only Spruce King not tall enough to reach through the pack of jubilant players and touch the Doyle Cup the Kings won a couple weeks ago in Prince George. He picked Bochen up just so he could get a hand on the trophy.

Before he got to the Spruce Kings, Coyle played three seasons with the Listowel Cyclones, and he last year he led them their first-ever Ontario junior B provincial championship. He did the same thing with the Spruce Kings, who had never in their 23-year BCHL history won the Fred Page Cup or Pacific regional Doyle Cup title until this season.

As much as his parents, Bob and Belinda from Tillsonburg, Ont., are proud of their eldest son's hockey accomplishments in his final junior season, it's what he's done away from the rink that touches their soul.

The lure of the NCAA and the chance to get a team interested enough to offer a U.S. college scholarship is what brought Coyle to Prince George. The one thing holding him back was his academic standing. Several Division 1 schools wanted him for hockey abilities but he didn't have enough high school core subjects on his resume to meet their requirements.

The University of Alabama-Huntsville made him a deal. If Coyle enrolled in school full-time at the College of New Caledonia while he played for the Spruce Kings and he was able to pass all his subjects with good enough grades, there was a four-year full-ride scholarship waiting for him. Juggling school and hockey was the hardest thing Coyle has ever had to do but he did it, pulling off a 2.70 grade point average to clear the lone hurdle preventing him from playing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with the Chargers.

"We both didn't expect him to make it," said Belinda. "He knew it was going to be the worst year of his life and he got through it. He was on the ice or watching video until 3 p.m. and then he'd go to school until 9 or 10 at night. We're more proud of that than his hockey."

Coyle has beaten the odds before. He was born seven weeks premature on Jan. 29, 1998, as a seven-pound baby and spent a month on a respirator until his lungs could develop.

"They sat us down three times over a three-week period to say he's not going to make it through the night," said Belinda.

Coyle has a 19-year-old sister, Meg, a law student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and they get along like fire and water, and he has a 17-year-old brother, Kenny, who worships the ground Max walks.

Tillsonburg is a tobacco town of about 15,000 located 40 minutes south of London. Coyle started skating when he was two, with help from his mom, a former figure skater who taught him how to use his edges. By the time he was four, he was playing on a team of eight-year-olds. His path through minor hockey led him to triple-A regional teams until his first year of bantam, when the Tillsonburg coach asked him to play for his hometown team which went on to win the provincial title.

Coyle first heard about Prince George from his hockey buddy, Jamie Huber, who was recruited by the Kings two seasons ago but didn't like all the bus travel the Kings have to do and left the team early that season. Coyle was prepared for those long trips and has used that time to form an unbreakable bond with his teammates.

"He absolutely loves the guys and he felt this team did a lot more work than any other team as far as icetime and video preparation," said Belinda. "He's got buddies on other teams that came from Listowel and they'd be on the ice 45 minutes a day and that was it. This was a lot of work and he thinks very highly of Mags (head coach Maglio). He thinks he got in with the best coach, which is why he came to Prince George."

Bob was home in Tillsonburg watching with a crowd of friends and Belinda was in Colorado and couldn't be there to join the celebration when the Kings captured the Doyle Cup in a six-game series win over Brooks in front a delirious sold-out crowd at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena. But Max used his phone to Facetime his mom so she could share the moment with him. All the Kings players have parents with them this week in Brooks.

Coyle's billet parents from Prince George, Carmen and Shawn DeMerchant, also made the trip and found out it was Bandits forward Jake Lee's billet grandfather who started the "Coyle" catcalls. Lee, a native of Owen Sound, Ont., and Coyle were Cyclone teammates for those three seasons and became best friends after they stayed together in the same billet house for those three seasons in Listowel.

"Max spoke to the billet grandfather and spoke to him when he visited Jake's house and he told him he was going to yell out his name, just joking around, and the fans caught on to that," said Belinda. "He thrives on it, and it makes him better. He's a pretty chirpy guy and he loves that."

Coyle used to fight a lot in Listowel and he started to change his ways after getting into a scrum during a game.

"An older guy on another team pinned him in a corner and said to him, 'You've gotta stop the beaking, you're a good hockey player, rely on that more than your mouth.' That turned Max, he went from 100 per cent chirping to 10 per cent chirping."

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