Around the BCHL: Merritt, Chilliwack and Coquitlam early-season surprises

Around the BCHL is a look at what’s going on in the league and throughout the junior A world.

Welcome to the October 16, 2018 edition of Around the BCHL.

I’m starting off today with something I wrote for the latest Chilliwack Progress newspaper.

Who is the most surprising team in the BCHL so far?

To me, it comes down to three teams, the Merritt Centennials, Chilliwack Chiefs and Coquitlam Express.

We’re at the quarter pole of the 2018-19 season (bizarre right?) and the Cents are in unfamiliar territory, leading the Interior division with a 9-6-0-0 record. Their high powered offence (bizarre right?) has produced 64 goals in 15 games, 11 more than the next highest scoring team, the Express (bizarre right?).

The highest Merritt has finished in the Interior division in 15 seasons dating back to 2003-04 is a second place showing in 2011-12, with a handful of third and fourth place finishes sprinkled in. But the long-suffering Centennials fans have seen too many fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth place finishes (nine combined), so here’s hoping they’re enjoying the hot start.

Can it last? Only seven points separate the top of the Interior from the bottom, and perennial powerhouses Penticton, Wenatchee and Vernon are off to slow starts. One bad stretch could easily send Merritt hurtling down the standings, and the rate at which they cough up goals (56, second only to Surrey’s 63) is alarming.

Still, they are definitely a surprise so far.

Seems strange to include the defending RBC Cup champs on a surprising team list, but Chilliwack head coach Brian Maloney spent the entire summer talking about how this was going to be a young and potentially mistake-prone team.

They are definitely young. Someone who is good with numbers believes they are the youngest team in the B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba junior A leagues and some nights they’ve played like it. But with a top goaltender (Mathieu Caron) and total buy-in from the players, the Chiefs sit atop the BCHL standings with a 11-4-0-0 record.

“I don’t like being called a surprising team because that means people expected us to be bad,” said Chilliwack forward Matt Holmes, who scored the game winner in a 3-2 triumph over Vernon Sunday. “But I guess it’s good that we’re doing well and it’s nice that people are recognizing that we are a strong team.”

The Express are 10-5 to start the season and sit just two points back of the Chiefs in the overall standings after beating Nanaimo 5-2 on home ice Sunday.

Since winning the Fred Page Cup in 2013-14, Coquitlam has posted records of 25-28-4-0, 22-29-6-0, 11-44-1-0 and 15-38-1-0. They showed signs of life after Christmas last season and are on the comeback trail early in 2018-19, already closing in on their win totals from 2017-18 and 2016-17. Unlike the Centennials, their potent offence appears to be accompanied by solid defence and goaltending, making them less prone to regression.

Don’t want to get negative with this, but the most disappointing team so far has to be the Surrey Eagles, who appeared to finally be back on track last season.

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Speaking of Surrey, the man who spearheaded last year’s turnaround is back in the league.

Brandon West is joining Penticton’s coaching staff as an assistant to head coach Fred Harbinson.

“Brandon will be a great addition to our already strong support staff,” Harbinson said in a Vees news release. “Our organization has always taken pride in the development of our players and Brandon’s experience will be a benefit to achieving our goals.”

West has led a nomadic life in recent seasons.

He was the head coach of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks from 2014-2017, and in his one season with Surrey led the team to the Mainland division final. He’s highly regarded enough to be behind the bench for Team Canada West at this year’s World Junior A Challenge (Dec. 9-15 in Bonnyville, Alberta).

“This (Penticton) is a premiere organization not only within this league, but in hockey as well,” West said. “I’m very excited for this opportunity. It’s an honour to be here and I’m looking forward to it.”

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What a tough luck weekend for the Vipers.

Hosting the Surrey Eagles Saturday night at Kal Tire Place, Vernon led 5-4 in the final minute after Josh Latta scored the apparent game winner with 1:07 to go. But Surrey’s Holden Katzalay tied the game with just 15 seconds remaining and Riley Hayles won it for the Eagles 59 seconds into overtime. It was the third OT loss for Vernon this season, most in the league.

The Vipers played a very solid game Sunday in Chilliwack and led 2-1 in third period before a Harrison Blaisdell power play goal tied the game at the 11 minute mark. The Chiefs won the game with just 21 seconds remaining as Matt Holmes buried a centering pass from Kevin Wall.

Sitting dead last in the Interior division as of this writing, Vernon has to hope they’re due for some better luck.

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Two BCHL skaters have been chosen to play in the 2018 World U-17 Hockey Challenge.

Langley defenceman Ryan Helliwell and Penticton forward Cole Shepard will travel to New Brunswick in early November, along with 64 others.

The group will be split into three teams (Canada Black/Red/White) and face the United States, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic in the tournament, which runs Nov. 3-10 in Saint John and Quispamsis.

Helliwell, 16, is 11 games into his BCHL career, with six assists and 15 penalty minutes to show for it. He’s a left-shooting six-foot and 181 pound defenceman.

Shepard, 16, has collected three assists in 12 games with the Vees.

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Slow motion highlights are the best.

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Finally, news on a BCHL grad as Marcus Vela is named captain of the NCAA Div-1 New Hampshire Wildcats.

“Marcus has a great work ethic,” said UNH head coach Mike Souza in a news release. “He brings it every day at practice and plays the game the right way. He’s got a presence about him and I think the guys recognized all that and that’s why they elected him captain.”

Vela played two seasons for the Rivermen (2013-14, 2014-15). In his final BCHL campaign he collected 20 goals and 46 points in 50 games.

He’s starting his fourth season at UNH and was named the team’s top defensive forward last year.

Vela was drafted in the seventh round (190th overall) of the 2015 National Hockey League entry draft by the San Jose Sharks, but remains unsigned.

Eric Welsh is the sports editor at the Chilliwack Progress and has been covering junior A hockey in B.C. and Alberta since 2003.

Email eric.welsh@theprogress.com

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