Four teams face off today in the 50th edition of the Junior B provincial hockey championship in Creston, with the Beaver Valley Nitehawks looking to hoist their fourth Cyclone Taylor Cup.
The Cyclone Taylor’s storied history dates back to 1966-67, and this year’s tournament marks the 50th year hockey teams from across B.C. have played for the title. The Comox Totems won the inaugural Cup in ‘67, with the Nelson Junior Maple Leafs winning it in ‘68, and the Trail Junior Smoke Eaters coached by former Nitehawks coach Roy Casler in ‘70. The Smoke Eaters won it again in ‘91 under Dan Bradford, before the Nitehawks captured it in ‘97, ‘01, and ‘14.
The legacy continues as the KIJHL champion Nitehawks begin their quest for the Cup with a game today against the Campbell River Storm, a team that won the tournament in 2015 and captured bronze last year.
“I don’t have any real expectations for what they (the teams) are going to be like,” said Nitehawks coach and GM Terry Jones. “It’s very similar to what we faced in Chase, we didn’t really know anything … What we’re going to do is let our play dictate the game. I just want to let the boys play.”
The Storm faced the Victoria Cougars in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) best-of-seven championship matchup, and it took all seven games and then some as the Storm eked out a 4-3 win in the fourth overtime period on Sunday to capture the Island title.
The Aldergrove Kodiaks won their third Pacific Junior Hockey League (PJHL) title in nine years, defeating the Delta Ice Hawks 3-2 in double-OT in Game 6 of the best-of-seven series on Mar. 28, but have yet to win a provincial title. The Kodiaks dominated the PJHL season standings with a 36-7-0-0 record, winning the regular season title with 72 points.
The host, Creston Valley Thunder Cats, won the regular season Eddie Mountain Division title but were upset by the Kimberley Dynamiters and ousted from the KIJHL playoffs on Mar. 14. A well-rested Cats team will be lethal up front with 15 players registering more than 20 points this season including leaders Paxton Malone 26-38-64, Liam Plunkett (55 points), and Thomas Cankovic (48 points). The team boasts a veteran blue line anchored by Trail Smoke Eater APs Sebastion Kilcommons and McConnell Kimmett and is solid between the pipes with 20-year-old Brock Lefebvre carrying a 2.45 goals against average and .924 save percentage into the championship.
Whether the three-week layoff helps or hinders the Thunder Cats is debatable, says Jones, but the Nitehawks coach is expecting their game against Creston on Saturday to be a decisive one.
“They have a good team and a good core of leaders on their team, so I expect them to be the toughest team there. They are staying in their homes and eating their own food, and I think that’s where the home team has the advantage.”
The Nitehawks suffered a couple setbacks against the Chase Heat in the KIJHL final, losing an injured Devin Ghirardosi for the rest of the playoffs. Forward Mitch Foyle was also sidelined with injury and missed the final game against the Heat, however, the week off since B.V.’s sweep has given the Fruitvale product a chance to recover.
“I think Mitch is ready to return, he’s had a couple good practices and he’s starting to feel really good,” said Jones. “I expect him to play tomorrow. I have a couple other guys with some slight bang-ups, and how we manage their injuries will be important because it’s four-games-in-four-days and it’s hard on the body and they know that. We’re hoping our depth plays a big part of it.”
The Nitehawks will look to their veteran leaders Sam Swanson, Kyle Hope, Dylan Heppler, Tyler Hartman et al to lead them into the Cyclone with speed and an aggressive forecheck, and the Hawks rookies to chip in the way they have throughout the season. With a strong blue line and stellar goaltending from Hawks Tallon Kramer, B.V. will look to duplicate the success of the Nitehawks’ 2014 championship team and advance to Sunday’s final.
“We guide ourselves by playing with four lines, and having a balanced attack,” said Jones. “So what we hope is that we can maintain what we have been doing all year … I don’t know if the other team roll four lines, I know that Creston doesn’t; they play their top guys a lot, and that adds up in a short series.”
The winner of the Cyclone Taylor Cup will advance to the Keystone Cup, the Western Canadian championship, in Arborg, Man., Apr. 13-17.
The Nitehawks open against Campbell River today at 3:30 p.m., play the Kodiaks on Friday at 3:30 p.m. and the Thunder Cats on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The top two teams play in the final at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Creston and District Community Complex.