Nobody knows the best and the worst of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League like Rhys Williams.
In a journey that started three seasons ago with the hapless Westshore Stingers, 19-year-old Williams has since made three all-star appearances, suffered through injury, and has been cut, benched and traded (not in that order).
And it’s all been worth it as Williams is enjoying a dominant season as an assistant captain and top-four defenceman with the league’s best team. The Victoria Cougars have not only locked up a first-round playoff bye with 29 wins in 35 games, they’ll hang on to to first place even if they lose all seven of their remaining regular season games. But they won’t do that.
As of Thursday, the Cougars were riding a nine-game win streak, and were attempting to extend the win streak to double digits for the second time this season.
“We haven’t really talked about (clinching first overall). With the coach, it’s all about focusing on individual skill and team play in practice,” Williams said.
Any player or coach with the Cougars, however, will tell you last year’s Game 7 loss to the Peninsula Panthers in the league final still stings.
The club recently added forward Colin Minardi from the Summerland Steam (Kootenay), defenceman Graham Zagrodney from the Swan River Stampeders (Manitoba Jr. A), and goalie Bryce Halverson from the Heritage Jr. B league in Alberta.
Zagrodney has two points in two games, Minardi has seven points in three games, and Halverson has won all seven games he’s started since Dec. 15.
Needless to say, Wiliams’ time with the Cougars is a world away from his experience with the Stingers.
Three seasons ago he was part of the Stingers’ monumental win. It was Dec. 12 of 2009, and the Stingers upset the Oceanside Generals to end a 91-game losing streak. Williams still remembers what has become the greatest win in the history of the now defunct Stingers franchise.
“I can’t really explain that game,” Williams said. “For once, everyone was there to play, everyone was there to battle and everything clicked.
“The next game we tried to do everything right again. Pretty sure it was against the Cougars. They scored a couple goals, we got intimidated and we lost again.”
Williams was part of a crew of pals with Jake Nixon (Cougars) and Travis Oickle (Kerry Park Islanders) who grew up in Langford, went to Belmont secondary, and played Juan de Fuca minor hockey before joining the league with the Stingers.
In the early going of last season Williams was traded to the Cougars and Oickle was traded to the Islanders. Nixon remained a Stinger until the bitter end, eventually selected by the Cougars in the dispersal draft of December 2010.
Even getting the trade finalized proved difficult, as Williams was moved just a few weeks prior to the team’s dispersal.
When the trade went through, Williams recognized the difference as soon as he arrived at Archie Browning arena.
“The players were welcoming but (coach Mark Van Helvoirt) was strictly business. No backwards hats, be respectful and present yourself in a professional manner. You walk into the Cougars dressing room and all 21 guys have bought into the system.
“With the Westshore, it’s hard to say what was so different. Even though it was a lot of kids I grew up with, only three or four guys were buying into the system and trying to win. Obviously it’s not going to work out that way.”
Williams adjusted to the high-tempo practise, too.
“I think, in one hour we do 30 more drills then you do somewhere else. It was like, you miss a pass and you do 10 pushups. It was prim and proper.”
Despite the constant losses, being a Stinger wasn’t all bad, Williams said.
“There were some things I respected about the owner (John Butler-Smythe), he tried hard to do things his way. And coach Bryan Grant was one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. It wasn’t his fault. Some kids just weren’t ready (for junior).”
When Van Helvoirt acquired Williams, one of the issues he addressed early was the long-term effect of being around a losing environment.
“Williams had a short memory, credit to him,” Van Helvoirt said. “He’s put in the work and he’s an all-star in our eyes, one of the top defenceman in the league.”
The Cougars visit the Campbell River Storm tonight. The next home game is Feb. 2 versus the Saanich Braves at Archie Browning Sports Centre, 7:15 p.m.