For the next few months, the Surrey Eagles – and the rest of their BC Hockey League brethren – will attempt to pull off an impressive balancing act as they wait for the season to start.
With the regular-season not slated to begin until December, the Eagles are trying to keep their intensity levels high as they play more than a dozen exhibition games – far more than in a normal preseason – while also making sure they don’t burn themselves out before the games actually count in the standings.
The team has been skating and working out at South Surrey Arena for the past few weeks, and their first two exhibition games are slated for this weekend in Chilliwack against their division-rival Chiefs – games cannot yet be played in Surrey, due to the city still being in Phase 2 of its COVID-19 protocols.
The team plans to prepare for the preseason tilts as though they are the real thing, although Eagles head coach Cam Keith admits he’s already had to pull back on the reins once – at the team’s very first on-ice session.
“These kids have been locked in their houses for months at a time, and they’re teenagers. They’re thoroughbreds – they want to run, they want to compete,” he said.
“It was almost too much – guys were out there pushing themselves too hard to the point where they were making mistakes. I had to say to them, ‘Calm down, guys. We have two-and-a-half months of this.'”
But unlike a traditional preseason, during which teams would have bloated rosters that would require multiple rounds of cuts as training camps progress, this year – due to COVID-19 restrictions – the Eagles’ roster is already set, Keith said, which means there’s more time for preparation and less time spent by coaches agonizing over roster decisions.
“We’re taking them all like regular-season games. You can place the exhibition tag on them, but we’re playing our full roster, not mixing in young kids trying to make the team,” he said.
As well, the games will have plenty of people watching, even if the arenas are empty.
“The games are (streamed online) on HockeyTV, and these kids are being evaluated by Division 1 schools… and there’s no other hockey being played right now either, so these guys may actually get even more attention than they normally would.”
Hey, Eagles fans! We've got the whole exhibition schedule!
Remember that there won't be any fans in the building, so make sure to use code BCHLEAGLES20 on @MyHockeyTV to get $80 off the entire season!
— Surrey Eagles (@SurreyEagles) September 23, 2020
In total, 16 preseason games are scheduled against the BCHL’s other Lower Mainland teams in Coquitlam, Langley an Chilliwack.
“We’re in our cohort (divisions) so there’s not much travel right now – it’s only 20 minutes (in any direction), so why not go play Langley instead of just scrimmaging (amongst ourselves). You don’t really get that real competitiveness until you play other teams,” Keith said.
While the pandemic scuttled all junior-hockey teams’ usual scouting trips and summer plans, the Eagles were less adversely affected than some, Keith added, because they had to add fewer players than many teams. While they have added a few new players – including, just this week, Burnaby Winter Club’s Rocco La Cara – the Birds are returning 15 players from last year’s team, which advanced to the second round of the playoffs before COVID-19 cut the season short.
“Having those returning kids, that was by design going back to the start of last season – we’ve always had a two-year plan. Last year’s playoff run was just a cherry on top.”
Returning players and newcomers alike had to quarantine before official training sessions could begin, Keith said. The team’s American players just recently completed their two-week quarantine and joined the sessions. And though adjusting to a new team and a new country during such an unusual time could have been difficult, he said the out-of-town players have handled the situation well.
“It’s been strange, but we’ve got two kids who have come from New York, and they were there during the part (of the pandemic) where that was not a good place to live, so they’re happy to be here,” he said. “And for our other guys who are returning, White Rock feels like home to them now.”
Another wrinkle in the 2020-21 season is that affiliate players – called up by BCHL teams from junior ‘B’ or minor-hockey ranks to fill in when injuries strike – are now allowed this season unless they quarantine for two weeks first. So while they could still join a team after two weeks, it renders any last-minute emergency call-ups moot.
“You just can’t have any – it is what it is. You just cross your fingers and hope you don’t have many (injuries),” Keith said.
Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding the start to the 2020-21 season, Keith said the players returning from last season are a little extra motivated due to the feeling that “they were a little bit robbed” of the opportunity to make a long playoff run last spring.
The team edged the Chiefs in a dramatic seven-game series and in mid-March were set to face the powerhouse Coquitlam Express when play was suspended and ultimately cancelled altogether.
“I remember even in the handshake line (at the end of Game 7 against Chilliwack), we were told, ‘Don’t shake their hands – do elbow bumps,'” Keith recalled.
“I remember thinking, ‘What is going on here?’ We didn’t know how bad it was. Then a few days later, all this stuff happens and we didn’t get the chance to finish.
“And now have this two-and-a-half months… everyone is going to be in midseason form by the time we get going, so there should be no excuses.”