Another Alberni Valley Bulldogs season has come to an end, although this one looked a little different than previous years.
The Bulldogs ended the 2020-21 B.C. Hockey League season with a second-place finish in the Island Division pod, two points behind the Victoria Grizzlies and nine points ahead of the third-place Nanaimo Clippers.
Bulldogs head coach Joe Martin called the shortened season a success.
“Every BCHL team—all of the staff, billets and players—nobody had any sickness,” he said. “It gives a lot of good credibility to the league.”
Bulldogs players began arriving in Port Alberni in August 2020, as the BCHL started playing exhibition games in empty arenas in September.
However, as COVID-19 case counts worsened in the fall, the province added more restrictions and BCHL teams were unable to travel around the province to play games. The players waited for the news that they could safely re-start. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs lost a large portion of their lineup to other teams and leagues that were playing in other parts of North America.
Word finally came in March that the BCHL would play a shortened 20 game “pod” season—and the Alberni Valley Bulldogs would be hosting the Island pod.
“We had a lot of new players,” said Martin. “But the buy-in from the players and their growth as a team was the reason we had a lot of success. I give them a lot of credit—it isn’t easy going from the billet house to the rink, not allowed to do anything else.”
The condensed season was tough on the players, said Martin, and the Bulldogs ended their season with a number of injuries.
But the Bulldogs had plenty of good news stories this year, from Luke Pearson’s MVP performance in goal to the dynamic trio of Stephen Castagna, Brandon Buhr and Josh Van Unen becoming one of the most dominant lines in the BCHL. Martin said he first put the three forwards together during a practice session in January and figured out very quickly that he couldn’t split them up.
“They’re creative, they feed off each other,” said Martin. “They were playing top pairing defencemen every night and still performed well.”
A number of rookies also put in impressive performances this year, including Chase Klassen, Ethan Bono and Emanuelson Charbonneau.
“A lot of our young guys got games in,” said Martin. “It’s going to help them next year. Now they can feel a bit more confident going into next season.”
Three players—Ethan Hersant, Lukas Jirousek and Pearson—will be graduating this year. The rest of the roster will be eligible to return next season.
“We have other players we’ve committed to, as well,” said Martin. “Our depth is very strong for next season.”
At this point, the BCHL does not know what the 2021-22 season will look like. But Martin is hoping to see crowds in the stands again soon.
“The fans are dearly missed by the players,” said Martin. “There’s a huge connection there that’s missing.”
After their final game on May 11—a shootout win against the Clippers—the Alberni Valley Bulldogs gathered as a group one last time to clean up the locker room, pack up personal belongings and have the Bulldogs coaching staff hand out the annual team awards. Here are this year’s award winners:
Academic Player of the Year: Ethan Bono
Unsung Hero: Josh Van Unen
Coaches Award: Stephen Castagna
Most Sportsmanlike Player: Emanuelson Charbonneau
Best Defenceman: Ryan Nause
Most Improved Player: Adam Jeffery
Hardest Working Player: Chase Klassen
Rookie of the Year: Brandon Buhr
Top Scorer: Stephen Castagna
Most Valuable Player: Luke Pearson