The Delta Ice Hawks will be shooting for much more than repeating as champions when they open their Pacific Junior Hockey League (PJHL) regular season schedule on Sept. 10.
With more than a dozen returning players, the Ice Hawks should not only be in position to win their sixth title, but also help the franchise sail into unchartered waters the following season.
That’s when B.C. Hockey’s new junior “A” tier 1 league is expected to take flight.
Earlier, the sport’s provincial governing body announced all 45 junior “B” teams in the PJHL, Vancouver Island and Kootenay leagues have been re-classified as junior “A” tier 2 under a new player development pathway.
It’s in response to the long-established B.C. Hockey League (BCHL) opting to end its affiliation with Hockey Canada and operate as an independent league this coming season.
It will then be up to an advisory board to determine through a rigorous process which applying franchises will be elevated to junior “A” tier one.
The future goal for those teams will be to eventually seek membership with the Canadian Junior Hockey League. It would open the door to competition for the Centennial Cup, Canada’s junior ‘A’ championship, and eligibility for players and bench staff for Hockey Canada’s CJHL’s World Junior A Challenge.
It’s a challenge the Ice Hawks didn’t hesitate to take on, under owner/president Eduard Epshtein and GM/head coach Steve Robinson.
“We were one of the first teams to that put forward a plan to go to tier one the following season,” said Robinson. “We put our hat into the ring and we will see where it goes from there, but it should be fun. Nothing structurally changes too much because we already ran things higher than the level that we were obligated to. For some though, erasing the ‘B’ and making it an ‘A’ will change people’s perception and make (the league) a more viable alternative where every team should be getting three to five more good players and make the league more competitive.”
Robinson has already seen the benefit of the league’s change in status with two rookie standouts from a year ago opting to return rather than try to play in the BCHL or a junior “A” league outside of B.C.
Soon-to-be 18-year-old Zach Shaughnessy was one of the league’s top goaltenders last season with 1.92 goals against average and .927 save percentage in 25 appearances. Also opting to stay put is forward Payton Hu, 18, who compiled 70 points over 41 games in his rookie campaign.
They join a solid core of returning veterans, including high-scoring 19-year-old twins Conner and Carson Merriman, along with newly-appointed captain and standout blueliner Yuji Akimoto. Robinson’s recruiting class includes Greater Vancouver Canadians’ alumni Brandon Petrie and Declan Warburton who both saw regular minutes during last year’s post-season run. Ryan Bal, Caelan Mander and Ladner’s Ty Hemenway are other d-men returning.
“We definitely got a really nice core and with this young group of six or seven rookies I’ve signed, a couple of free agent guys I traded for, I feel pretty good about the composition of the team and giving ourselves a really great chance to run it back and win it again.”
The Ice Hawks will host Port Moody in their home opener on Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 7:35 p.m. at the Ladner Leisure Centre.