Coach Brad Cook and the Saanich Braves are not losing sight of the fact this is their year.
The Braves (19-4-1) went 7-1-1 in November and are the second-ranked team in B.C. behind the Victoria Cougars (25-1-1).
There have been some great seasons in the Braves’ 45-year history, and this could be one of their biggest, as they try to win their first Island championship since 1996.
“We try not to lose sight of the fact that we’re in a developmental league,” Cook said.
“We try to roll four lines consistently, to give younger guys a chance to fail (so they can learn), chances on the powerplay and penalty kill, and chances to face other team’s top players.
“But if there’s ever a year that we’re going to look beyond that, this is it.”
Two weeks ago the Braves served notice to the rest of the province as the first team to take the Cougars out in regulation with a 3-1 win.
One of the biggest reasons for success this year is the team’s depth. There have been promising seasons from the Braves in recent years but for the first time the team is not being slowed by injuries.
Recruiting has changed for the Braves, as word of the team’s success has reached dressing rooms around the province. The biggest piece added in the offseason was Josh Gray, a Gibsons native who once played for Osoyoos in the Kootenay junior B league.
Gray finished last season with 17 points in 14 games for the Texas Brahmas of the USHL, and has no regrets about the decision to leave the NCAA-feeder league for the Braves.
“It was pretty rough down there, a little different, and it was great weather, but I’m pretty happy here,” said the 6-foot-3, 205 lbs. winger.
Gray, 20, has gelled with captain Ty Jones (26 goals, 55 points in 22 games) on the top line, scoring 19 goals and 21 assists in 24 games.
“(Gray) brings a really calming presence in the dressing room, and a big physical presence on the ice,” Cook said. “He’s been to the Cyclone Taylor Cup (B.C. championship), the kind of player you want when you’re going to make a run at the playoffs.”
The additions continue for the Braves.
Nolan Kinney, another 6-foot-3, 200-lbs. winger, has played two games since coming over from the Kerry Park Islanders. Last week Chad Roorda returned to the Braves after two seasons playing junior A. His arrival on the blue line is perfect timing as he is desperately needed to help fill in with injuries to defencemen Jordan Groenhyde, Brandon Parmar, Tom Dakers and Andrew White, a forward who also succombed to injury while playing defence.
And it gets better, as the Braves won the Max Mois sweepstakes on Monday, acquiring the leading scorer of the Westshore Wolves.
“Max was coveted by other teams and said he wanted to come to us. He’s a top scorer, and he makes us that much stronger,” said Braves general manager Norm Kelly.
“It shows we’re committed to going all the way this year.”
Mois, a former Nelson Leaf of the Kootenay junior B league, is sixth overall in VIJHL scoring leaders with 19 goals and 18 assists. He can play centre, or wing, and gives the Braves the option of an even sharper first line, with Jones and Gray.
It also lightens the load on the depleted defence, as forward Shawn McBride will remain on the blue line.
“You go through cycles in junior hockey, and right now we’re at the top of our cycle,” Cook said. “We owe it to the guys to win.”