Is this the year the Ridge Meadows Flames become contenders again?
That question will start being answered Friday night, as the local Junior B club hosts its home-opener at 7:30 p.m. at Planet Ice.
This is a team that finished in third place in its conference, while icing a team with 16 rookies – among the youngest teams in the league.
The Flames lost to Abbotsford in five games during the playoffs.
It was a good season for the young squad, said GM/coach Jamie Fiset.
“You can’t take a shortcut to experience.”
If you indeed build a hockey team from the crease out, then Flames GM has a solid foundation in Tyler Read and Kurt Climek.
“Both guys are capable of playing a lot of hockey,” he said, but they approaching this season with a mutual respect and friendly rivalry so far.
Klimek is 18, and has three years of junior hockey ahead of him. Read is 20, in his final season, and one of the leaders on the ice and off it.
Up front, the team has retained lots of scoring punch.
Fiset mentions Dale Howell, the team’s top scorer last year, after he put up 38 points, including 11 goals, in 40 games.
Michael Bell, the local boy who played junior A with the Trail Smoke Eaters and Beaver Valley Nitehawks, flashed some offence, with nine points in 15 games, to go with a bruising 220-pound frame.
Boston Colley had a brief career in the B.C. Hockey League, and the Pitt Meadows native is back with his hometown Flames. Last year he had 21 points in 28 games.
Jake Holland is moving on to Junior A, playing in Ontario for the Fort Francis Lakers.
The defence returns Cameron Alder, Shawn Tilton, Joe Olson and Andrew Castagna, and potentially more players, depending on how their tryouts go with BCHL teams.
Fiset is hoping for big things from new forwards Nick Ponak of Abbotsford and Andrew Strelezki of Mission. They had 55 and 53 points respectively in major midget hockey, working as linemates. They are great hockey prospects, who could soon find their way to Junior A.
“They’re young and they are dynamic. If they last the season with us, I’ll be surprised,” said Fiset.
The Flames took a pair of local forwards in Johnny Weloy and Chris Denney out of Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey.
Fiset had a busy off-season, and also recruited North Vancouver defenceman Ben Chipman.
“We’ve got a nice mix of older players and younger players,” he said.
Assistant coach Derek Bedard will be a new face on the bench this year, working with the defencemen.
“He’s a hard worker who knows his stuff,” said Fiset.
He takes the place of Todd Fletcher, who moved to a paid coaching position in New Westminster.
“He did an outstanding job with our D last year,” said the head coach.
Their competition in the Harold Brittain Conference will be tough this year. There are five teams, and just one will miss the post-season. The Mission City Outlaws will host the Cyclone Taylor Cup this year, the Junior B provincial championship, and have loaded up with some veteran players. The Aldergrove Kodiaks are the reigning league champions, and the Abbotsford Pilots have been one of the league’s top franchises for the past decade or more.
So, this inter-conference home opener between the Flames and Knights is an important head-to-head matchup.
“We think this is a year we can compete for the top of our conference,” said Fiset.
Their first opponent will be the Langley Knights, who used to be the North Delta Devils, and are coached by onetime Vancouver Canucks prospect and former Maple Leaf player John Craighead. He is the owner, GM and the man on the bench.
The league opened on Wednesday night as the champion Aldergrove Kodiaks lost in double overtime to the Abbotsford Pilots