Pandemic pause ruled out inter-divisional play for two seasons in BC Hockey League
The Prince George Spruce Kings open their 27th BC Hockey League season Friday in Coquitlam and despite the fact it’s a road game for most of the Kings, captain Colton Cameron will feel right at home.
For the first time in three seasons he’s going to be playing a game close to home. Coquitlam is only a half-hour drive from Cameron’s hometown of Cloverdale and he’s one of seven Spruce Kings whose hockey roots are in the Lower Mainland.
The Kings switched to the Interior Conference two seasons ago and haven’t faced a Mainland Conference opponent since Feb. 22, 2020, the final day of the 2019-20 regular season. The pandemic wiped out that possibility the past two seasons. Cameron, in his final BCHL season before he moves to Bentley University in Massachusetts, can’t wait to strut his stuff in front of family and friends with games Friday in Coquitlam and Saturday in Langley. Ten of the Spruce Kings’ 54 games this season are against Coastal Conference opponents.
“My first year we played there all the time and it was weird not going back there the past two years and it will be nice to experience it again and play different teams,” said Cameron, heading into his fourth BCHL season.
Cameron, who collected two goals and 24 points in 54 games last season, is one of three returning defensemen. He and Amran Bhabra are back for a fourth year, while Ben LeFranc is about to begin his third season wearing the crown on his jersey. They’ve teamed up with four BCHL rookies on the blueline – Tait Ross, Alexsy Bandu, Luke Schraeder and Charlie Banquier. Injuries to LeFranc and Ross resulted in more playing time for the first-year guys in the four preseason games. Cameron anticipates there will be some growing pains in the first month of the season.
“We had some younger guys in the lineup who just need some time and experience and through time they will definitely step up and be a huge key,” said Cameron, who had two goals and 22 assists in 54 games last year.
“But right now, the returning players like Bhabra, (LeFranc) and myself, we’ve been on the team for a while now and know everything about the systems and what to do and that’s a huge plus going into the season,” he said.
“I think we have a lot of potential with this team, definitely an older group of guys with some players that have been on the team for a few years now. I’m really impressed with our forwards, lots of skill and a lot of power too, up there, with some bigger guys.”
At forward, the Kings have an abundance of BCHL experience with six players – John Herrington, Linden Makow, Evan Fedele, Ty Gagno, Austin Fraser and Kilian McGregor-Bennett – who drew regular shifts last season. Luca Primarano of North Vancouver, 17, joined the team at the end of the season and got a taste of the playoffs and the Kings figure he will develop into a dominant forward as he gets used to the pace of BCHL games. Adam Mendelson of Quebec, Brayden Skogstad of Kelowna, Ontario natives Jack Stockfish and Luke Eurig, and American imports Dom Murphy and Jake Schneider are the newcomers up front.
“The returning guys we have come back in really good shape; they practice hard, they do things the right way and I’m happy with them all,” said Kings head coach Alex Evin. “You can just tell with the guys who have been around here, they’re sharp, and our new guys need to start fitting in around here and we’re trying to get everyone on the same page.”
Jordan Fairlie, one of six 2002-born players on the Prince George roster, provides a known entity in goal. As backup last year to Aaron Trotter, the native of Fort St. John played in 20 regular season and three playoff games. His 2.01 goals-against average and .918 save percentage during the season ranked among the best in the league. To share the netminding duties, the Kings acquired 19-year-old Aidan Feddema from the Grande Prairie Storm, who played 36 AJHL games in 2021-22.
Evin, now in his fourth season as head coach of the Spruce Kings, has a new associate coach. Andrew Shaw joined the Kings in the off-season after three seasons in a similar role with the Chilliwack Chiefs. Evin says its difficult for him and Shaw to gauge how his team will stack up against BCHL opponents, especially in the early going, just because they’ve yet to ice a full lineup due to injuries that plagued them throughout the three-week preseason.
“We have 10 returning guys, so we’re about half and half with new faces and there is an adjustment period needed for the kids and staff when you switch teams and switch leagues, and for some of these guys that are switching countries,” said Evin.
“For the most part, I think we’re going to have a hard-working group again. We’ve had a lot of injuries so we’re just setting our foundation here the first bit. We haven’t been healthy yet and hopefully we can piece together a roster for the weekend.”
The BCHL has earned a reputation as the top junior A league in Canada for producing future pros. Five of the seven players picked in the NHL draft in June played for Interior Conference teams. The Spruce Kings know there are more pro prospects disbursed around the league and wins will be difficult to come by as the teams determine playoff positions between now and the end of the regular season in late March. Last spring, after a fourth-place finish, the Kings went two rounds deep into the playoffs, winning a six-game series against Cranbrook, followed by a four-game loss to Penticton.
“You can kind of see the returning guys still competing almost at that playoff intensity, which is great,” said Evin. “I think every team is going to be good. We played Merritt (and lost twice to the Cents in the preseason) and they’re much improved. I think every game is going to be so tight and I love it. It’s a fantastic division, it’s the best in junior hockey and we’re very fortunate to be a part of it. There’s a responsibility to try to outwork your opponents every game and it’s going to be a big challenge.” .
The Kings play their first home game at Kopar Memorial Arena Friday, Sept. 30, when they host Vernon.