New head coach Brent Hughes has the Ridge Meadows Flames in a battle for first place this season. (Flames Youtube/Special to The News)

New head coach Brent Hughes has the Ridge Meadows Flames in a battle for first place this season. (Flames Youtube/Special to The News)

New coach has Maple Ridge juniors in race for first

Brent Hughes has turned the Ridge Meadows Flames into Junior B elite

New head coach Brent Hughes has the Ridge Meadows Flames playing great hockey, as one of the top teams in the Pacific Junior Hockey League.

The last time the Maple Ridge Junior Bs were considered one of the best clubs in the league was 2017-2018, when they finished in fourth place with a win percentage of .636.

This year they are sailing along at 0.725 clip, just three points out of first place in the league, but with a game in hand.

“It’s been an exciting year for us so far,” he said. “At the start of the season, we didn’t know where we would stand.”

Hughes is one of the most qualified hockey men the PJHL has ever seen. He played in the NHL from the 1988-89 season with the Winnipeg Jets until the 1996-97 season with the New York Islanders. In between he was a regular with the Boston Bruins for three season, playing with the likes of Ray Bourque, Adam Oates and Cam Neely.

After a career that spanned 357 NHL games, he went on to coach professional hockey in the CHL with the Austin Ice Bats and the Corpus Christi Ice Rays for nine seasons.

He can certainly spot a hockey player, but admits evaluating teenagers was a new experience at the start of this campaign.

“It was a big change for me,” he said. “But I brought my love of the game, and I’ve been in the game my whole life.”

The Flames had a stumbling start, losing their first two games of the season, but have been on a tear since.

Hughes brings the same coaching philosophy as he had at the pro level – he wants a good skating team that makes plays at a high tempo.

“I love working with the guys,” he said. “I’m a bit old school, and School of Hard Knocks, but I also work in the new style, with lots of skating, and run-and-gun.”

Emphasizing skating works at any level, in any era.

“If we’re not skating we don’t have a chance to win.”

Hughes said the PJHL will never be an easy league to dominate.

“It’s a good league, and it’s gotten stronger as the year goes on,” he said, adding that there has been obvious improvement in the play of the opposition teams as the season progresses, and there are no wins that can be taken for granted.

The Flames lost to the first-place North Vancouver Wolf Pack on Friday night, by a score of 3-2, and Hughes was generally happy with the way his team played. Ridge has had some key injuries, including team captain Matthew Tyszka.

“We’re a little short-handed, but we’ve got a lot of depth,” he said.

The Flames have the most dangerous line in the league: Nicholas Amsler, who has led the league in points this season with 36 in 20 games; Ryan Denney, who tops the circuit in goals with 21 in 20 games; and rookie Jack Foster, who has 14 points in 11 games.

After a recent trade, Hughes anticipates giving his coaching rivals matchup nightmares, by icing a second line that’s in the same class as his first.

Forward Jack Steffens will center right winger Craig Schouten, who has sniped seven goals in seven games, and newly acquired left winger Alexander Beechey.

The 20-year-old Cloverdale product came from the Abbotsford Pilots, where he had 10 points in 14 games.

“He’s a great kid – skates well, handles the puck well and he does score goals.”

In 118 games he has scored 18 goals and put up 48 points, with a gritty 322 penalty minutes.

In exchange, the Flames traded forwards Josh Chapman and Dylan Smail.

Flames fans will next get a chance to see the lines that Hughes rolls out on Friday night when they host Abbotsford at Cam Neely Arena at 7:30 p.m.

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