With four shiny, new banners hanging from Beaver Valley Arena, the Nitehawks begin their quest to repeat as division, KIJHL, BC and Western Canadian Jr. B champions tonight when they face off against perennial nemesis the Nelson Leafs.
The Hawks went 3-2-1 in their brief exhibition season, including a 2-1 loss to Creston on Tuesday night, but Hawks veteran player Taylor Stafford is confident that the Nitehawks will again vie for top spot in the Neil Murdoch division.
“We’re looking pretty good, we have lots of speed and a good veteran presence – I think we’ll have a good year,” added Stafford who starts his third season with the Hawks.
Despite the unprecedented success of last year’s team, which won its first Keystone Cup, Stafford doesn’t put much credence in the championship hangover.
“It was an unreal experience, nothing could match it, and if anything it made me more excited to get the year going. It’s a great goal to do it again, after you do it once, you want to do it again that’s for sure.”
A major move behind the bench saw a former Trail Smoke Eaters head coach, Jim Ingram, take over for Jamie Cominotto as defensive coach. Ingram brings a wealth of experience to the position and allows Cominotto to move to assistant manager.
“I’m really excited,” said Ingram. “It caught me off guard a little bit, but at the same time I’m excited to be here, glad to be a part of it.”
Ingram last coached the BCHL Cowichan Valley Capitals from 2011-13, following four years as the Smokies bench boss, and his new responsibilities will be a change from his more accustomed role.
“It really was one of those situations, like tonight, during the time out I’m use to being the guy, and it was nice just to watch Jonesy (coach Terry Jones) do his thing and how he directs traffic out there,” said Ingram. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, you’re always learning.”
The 43-year-old Ladysmith native is no stranger to Jr. B hockey having coached the Kerry Park Islanders of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League to a pair of league titles. His tenure with the Smokies peaked in his final year when he led the team into the playoffs.
As for the Nitehawks, Ingram says the environment is so positive he is relishing the experience.
“It’s not a secret why they do a great job, but always win here. It’s a real family atmosphere and a lot of fun to be a part of.”
As for the Nitehawks’ defence, the team’s back end took a hit with the loss of captain Archie McKinnon, Fraser Stang, Sheldon Hubbard, and Jeremy Lucchini, yet, the return of Lyle Frank, Walker Sidoni, and the acquisition of Andy Miller from the Kimberley Dynamiters provide a solid foundation for the new assistant coach.
“It’s a good young group of hockey players back there . . . they’re big, they’re mobile, but there’s a lot of work to do, but their attitudes are great and the interactions I’ve had with them so far, they are very coachable.”
No doubt the Hawks will be a different team this year, with many of last year’s stars graduated or moved onto the BCHL; still, a quality core, led by third-year players Stafford and Jacob Boyczuk, and returnees Sam Swanson, Kyle Hope, and Mitch Foyle up front should provide some offensive punch.
“We have a team that has some speed, and we feel pretty good about our skill level,” said coach Terry Jones. “Now it’s a matter of seeing what we can do.”
A couple of bright lights stood out on Tuesday when Hayden Chase and Ross Armour finished a pretty passing play to net the Hawks only goal against the ThunderCats. Armour is one of two 16-year-old players on the squad, the other, Spencer McLean, also shone, showing speed and finesse in the offensive zone.
“The 16 year olds is always the toughest part of the camp, and always seems to be . . . it was really difficult but we felt Ross Armour and Spencer McLean really battled, they played well, contributed offensively, and showed they deserved to be on the club.”
The Nitehawks are built for speed, however, they lack a bit in size, and will be hard pressed to match the scoring prowess of last year’s squad.
“We’re going to have to do it more by committee this year,” says Ingram. “We have a real blue-collar feel to us, and I like that. I like our team. I think it’s going to be a lot different a month from now, and way different a month after that.”