Lis­ten up: Roy­als’ eighth season opens at home Fri­day

Peren­nial play­off con­tender now a team in tran­si­tion

Times Colonist - - Front Page - CLEVE DHEEN­SAW

Vic­to­ria Roy­als’ coach Dan Price pre­pares his play­ers for the Western Hockey League team’s eighth season, which starts Fri­day at Save-on-Foods Me­mo­rial Cen­tre against the Prince Ge­orge Cougars. The Times Colonist’s Cleve Dheen­saw looks at the re­vamped Roy­als, and there’s a photo page of the play­ers.

If there is a sym­bolic card game played on the Vic­to­ria Roy­als team bus on road trips, it’s cer­tainly not Crazy Eights. It might be some­thing with a bit more strat­egy and con­tem­pla­tion, such as bridge or poker, that bet­ter suits this me­thod­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The Roy­als en­ter their eighth season in the Western Hockey League as steady as it goes, hav­ing never missed the play­offs. Only four of the 22 WHL teams can boast of that over the past seven years: the Roy­als, Kelowna Rock­ets, Everett Sil­ver­tips and Port­land Win­ter­hawks.

Yet that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end among those four clubs. Vic­to­ria’s end game has been lack­ing. The Rock­ets and Win­ter­hawks have each won a WHL play­off cham­pi­onship and been to the Me­mo­rial Cup in that span, while the Sil­ver­tips were WHL fi­nal­ists last season. The Roy­als have never made it past the sec­ond round of the play­offs.

The Roy­als’ reg­u­lar-season steadi­ness, how­ever, is in stark con­trast to the last team to play in the WHL on Blan­shard Street. The Roy­als have so far man­aged to avoid the high peaks and low val­leys ex­pe­ri­enced by the Vic­to­ria Cougars, whose wildly un­even run lasted from 1971-72 to 1993-94. It in­cluded the WHL-record 60-win season in 1980-81, and WHL cham­pi­onship and Me­mo­rial Cup ap­pear­ances that year, to the death spi­ral that awaited and in­cluded a hum­bling five-win season en route to even­tu­ally leav­ing town and mov­ing to Prince Ge­orge.

But is it prefer­able to know glory, even fleet­ingly, or to be con­stantly stuck in the mushy mid­dle? That’s a ques­tion of­ten asked in the WHL.

It’s not as if Roy­als man­age­ment hasn’t gone for it. They did last season, giv­ing up a bit of their fu­ture in the form of promis­ing younger prospects to ac­quire vet­eran play­ers such as St. Louis Blues-signed Tan­ner Kaspick, San Jose Sharks-inked Noah Gre­gor and third-round Detroit Red Wings draft pick Lane Zablocki in bold mid-season trades in an at­tempt to win it all.

But you can’t plan for in­juries. The Roy­als’ dreams were dashed in the play­offs last spring by bru­tal losses of such key per­form­ers as Kaspick, all-time ca­reer Roy­als lead­ing goals, as­sists and pointsleader Tyler Soy, third-round Mon­treal Cana­di­ens draft pick Scott Walford and gritty Dino Kam­beitz. “There is a big el­e­ment of ran­dom­ness to all this,” said Roy­als head coach Dan Price, about the va­garies of hockey fate.

With Kaspick, Soy, Gre­gor and likely Zablocki gone, not to men­tion the un­der­sized but dy­namic cap­tain Matthew Phillips, it is a young Roy­als team that will take to the ice when Vic­to­ria opens the 2018-19 season on Fri­day night against the Prince Ge­orge Cougars at Save-on-Foods Me­mo­rial Cen­tre.

There are many around the league ut­ter­ing the word “re­build” and pre­dict­ing this will be the season the Roy­als fi­nally miss the post-season dance.

But they said that about the 2015-16 Roy­als team, too. That Vic­to­ria team as­ton­ished a dis­be­liev­ing hockey world by win­ning the Scotty Munro Tro­phy as WHL reg­u­lar-season cham­pi­ons.

That has be­come the ral­ly­ing cry of the up­com­ing season for the Roy­als.

“The last time peo­ple on the out­side were say­ing we would miss the play­offs, we won the Scotty Munro Tro­phy,” said Roy­als gen­eral man­ager Cameron Hope.

Re­turn­ing goal­tender Grif­fen Out­house is ex­pected to face a bl­iz­zard of rub­ber this season, much as fu­ture NHLer Steve Pass­more did in the crease dur­ing the dread­ful fi­nal years of the Vic­to­ria Cougars.

But Out­house re­flected the de­fi­ance in the Roy­als camp: “The last time they said we were re­build­ing was my rookie season in 2015-16, and we ac­cu­mu­lated 106 points and won the Scotty Munro Tro­phy as reg­u­lar-season cham­pi­ons.”

It is a sense of de­fi­ance stoked from the top.

“We want to prove we are le­git­i­mate con­tenders, no mat­ter what oth­ers are say­ing about us,” said bench boss Price.

“Ev­ery­one is say­ing this is a re­build and that we will not be as good as pre­vi­ous sea­sons. That doesn’t sit too well with our team, be­cause it is not ac­cu­rate and is dis­re­spect­ful to this group. We be­lieve we will get the re­spect we de­serve in the pub­lic eye. We be­lieve in our play­ers and they be­lieve in them­selves.”

Again, it’s that steady-hand-atthe-rud­der ap­proach this or­ga­ni­za­tion be­lieves in and so greatly trea­sures.

“We strive to min­i­mize the lows and max­i­mize the highs and keep a steady ship mov­ing for­ward,” said Price.

Hope, well-re­garded in the busi­ness and twice a fi­nal­ist and once a win­ner of the WHL man­ager-of-the-year award, said the aim is to be com­pet­i­tive ev­ery season, and la­belled the ap­proach “sus­tained ex­cel­lence.”

In­deed, the Roy­als have never re­ally been bad dur­ing their sev­enyear run in Vic­to­ria. Yet, nei­ther have they been truly great. Even the Scotty Munro reg­u­lar-season cham­pi­onship year ended in whiplash de­spair in a last-sec­ond turn­about in the play­offs that still haunts Roy­als fans. (Just men­tion “.02 sec­onds re­main­ing” to any Roy­als fan to elicit an al­most uni­ver­sal in­stant re­ac­tion of re­pul­sion and sor­row.) Mostly, the Roy­als have been ad­e­quate to good.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion stated three am­bi­tions — which all ma­jor­ju­nior teams chase and covet — when the fran­chise came to the Is­land from Chilli­wack in the 2011-12 season.

The first two in­volved hav­ing a pres­ence in the Me­mo­rial Cup na­tional ma­jor-ju­nior cham­pi­onship tour­na­ment and also the In­ter­na­tional Ice Hockey Fed­er­a­tion world ju­nior cham­pi­onship. The third am­bi­tion was to de­velop high first-round NHL draft picks who would, once a decade or so, cre­ate buzz on Blan­shard.

Qual­i­fy­ing for the Me­mo­rial Cup has proved prob­lem­atic and will re­main so through what is now look­ing to be a ros­ter re­build the next two sea­sons. So the Roy­als have been pro-ac­tive, and pro­posed host­ing the 2020 Me­mo­rial Cup at Me­mo­rial Cen­tre. With host­ing the tour­na­ment comes an au­to­matic berth for the home club. But that Vic­to­ria bid has since been put off to 2023, the next time af­ter 2020 the WHL is set to host in the Me­mo­rial Cup ro­ta­tion.

The rea­son for that is the Roy­als have been suc­cess­ful in their other quest and will co-host, with Van­cou­ver, the 2019 IIHF world ju­nior cham­pi­onship tour­na­ment be­gin­ning Box­ing Day at Me­mo­rial Cen­tre. It was thought that hav­ing the 2019 world ju­niors and 2020 Me­mo­rial Cup backto-back would sat­u­rate the mar­ket and too greatly tax the wal­lets of Is­land hockey fans.

The Roy­als have been rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful in an­other as­pect of the world ju­nior tour­na­ment that is im­por­tant to Cana­dian clubs — land­ing play­ers on the Cana­dian na­tional team. The Roy­als’ first brush with the world ju­nior tour­na­ment was when de­fence­man Joe Hick­etts twice made the Cana­dian team ros­ter, win­ning gold once. For­mer Roy­als coach Dave Lowry won gold as Cana­dian as­sis­tant coach in 2015, but the re­views were less glow­ing when he was Cana­dian head coach in 2016, as Canada fin­ished sixth.

The third aim for ma­jor-ju­nior clubs, of de­vel­op­ing NHL stars, has so far eluded the Roy­als. The great­est play­ers dur­ing the Roy­als’ ten­ure at Me­mo­rial Cen­tre have been blue­liner Hick­etts and for­ward Matthew Phillips, both un­der­sized but dy­namic, with big hearts, com­pet­i­tive drive and non-stop mo­tors.

The to­tal num­ber of NHL games played by Roy­als alumni over seven sea­sons is just the five the un­drafted Hick­etts has so far squeezed in with the Detroit Red Wings in his fledg­ling pro ca­reer. The vast ma­jor­ity of Roy­als grad­u­ates who re­main in hockey do so in ei­ther the mi­nor-pro ECHL/AHL or the U Sports Cana­dian univer­sity level. That’s where you will find the likes of Kevin Sund­her, Lo­gan Nel­son, Kee­gan Kanzig, Tyler Soy, Bran­don Magee, Steven Hodges and Austin Car­roll.

Iron­i­cally, those lo­cal fans who clam­ored for the re­turn of the WHL dur­ing seven sea­sons of the ECHL Vic­to­ria Salmon Kings be­cause they “wanted to see fu­ture NHLers” have seen a lot more fu­ture ECHLers come through Me­mo­rial Cen­tre with the Roy­als than they have fu­ture NHLers.

That’s just a fact. But an un­der­stand­able one. Few ca­sual fans re­al­ize just how hard it is to get to the NHL and just how good play­ers have to be to play even in the mi­nor pros. Af­ter all, the mi­nor pros and U Sports pay­ers are the same guys fans cheered for in ju­nior hockey.

Yet, WHL or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Kelowna Rock­ets and Port­land Win­ter­hawks have been NHL-prospect-pro­duc­ing ma­chines. This fall alone, the Win­ter­hawks have 10 play­ers at NHL train­ing camps. That in­cludes four play­ers taken in the first round of the NHL draft — Cody Glass with Las Ve­gas Golden Knights, Kieffer Bel­lows with New York Is­lan­ders, Henri Jok­i­harju with Chicago Black­hawks and Den­nis Cholowski with the Red Wings. Cur­rent NHLers, drafted from other WHL teams dur­ing the Roy­als’ seven-season era in the league, in­clude Mathew Barzal, Leon Drai­saitl, Sam Rein­hart, Jake Vir­ta­nen, Seth Jones, Josh Mor­ris­sey, Cur­tis Lazar, Ryan Mur­ray, Mor­gan Rielly and Mathew Dumba.

But there is now a glim­mer for Roy­als fans hop­ing for brag­ging rights while they watch NHL ac­tion in pubs or from the couches: Could Phillips and Hick­etts be the first Roy­als to break through to the NHL?

For Phillips, as it was for Hick­etts, it won’t be im­me­di­ate but part of a longer-term process. That’s be­cause size still mat­ters in the NHL, no mat­ter what the ex­perts say about a changeover to a quicker and faster-skat­ing brand of hockey in the big league.

So, much of the Roy­als’ out­look for 2018-19 de­pends on whether the Cal­gary Flames think Phillips will be bet­ter served by an­other season build­ing up his body in ju­nior hockey as an over-age 20-year-old, or by a step up to the pros in the AHL in Stock­ton, Cal­i­for­nia.

“The ques­tion the Flames will ask is whether there is any­thing more to be ac­com­plished by Matthew in the WHL?” said Hope.

The an­swer, ei­ther way, will pro­foundly af­fect the Roy­als’ up­com­ing season. The re­turn of Phillips would au­to­mat­i­cally pro­pel Vic­to­ria to high mid­dle-pack prospects in the Western Con­fer­ence. If, how­ever, Phillips is sent to Stock­ton in the AHL, the Roy­als’ prospects would plunge dra­mat­i­cally in the eyes of many prog­nos­ti­ca­tors.

The three cur­rent al­low­able 20-year-olds on the ros­ter — Out­house, for­ward Dante Han­noun and de­fence­man Ralph Jar­ratt — are cru­cial men­tors on such a young team. So is 19-yearold de­fence­man and third-round Mon­treal Cana­di­ens draft pick Scott Walford, ex­pected back early next month from the in­jury that kept him out of last season’s play­offs.

It of­ten comes down to the un­sung or role play­ers such as Kaid Oliver and Dino Kam­beitz of the Roy­als, who toil in the trenches but add much value by do­ing so. “Kaid and Dino have real op­por­tu­ni­ties to emerge this season,” said Price.

In five sea­sons on the Roy­als bench, for­mer coach Lowry (now as­sis­tant coach in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings) was a mas­ter at get­ting the most out of those kinds of play­ers. Now, sopho­more Vic­to­ria head coach Price must do the same.

There is such a thing as “Roy­als hockey,” said Price.

“What [Lowry] was so great at was his re­la­tion­ship with the play­ers,” said Price.

“That al­lowed the play­ers to un­der­stand why you are do­ing what you are do­ing as coaches. That em­pow­ers the play­ers to buy in and to take your con­cepts for­ward. We make sure the play­ers un­der­stand that one word — ‘why.’ ”

That, in turn, al­lows the play­ers to read­ily buy into the Roy­als’ on-ice strat­egy, which has al­ways been sim­ple, said Price.

“It’s the same fun­da­men­tals — we play fast, phys­i­cal and with tenac­ity. That never changes,” he said.

“If we in­stil those habits, we will suc­ceed and prove [de­trac­tors] wrong.”

That’s the Roy­als way. And it has worked fairly well up to now. The team ex­pects it to again. There will be noth­ing crazy about this eight.

ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Vic­to­ria Roy­als play­ers lis­ten to coach Dan Price dur­ing a prac­tice at Save-on-Foods Me­mo­rial Cen­tre.

Goal­tender Grif­fen Out­house makes a save dur­ing a prac­tice at Save on Foods Me­mo­rial Cen­tre.

Bran­don Cut­ler, left, is nearly hooked by as­sis­tant coach J.F. Best dur­ing prac­tice.

Mo­ment of glory: Vic­to­ria Roy­als Matthew Phillips, left, and Jeff de Wit cel­e­brate their win over the Van­cou­ver Gi­ants at Save-onFoods Me­mo­rial Cen­tre on April 3. The Roy­als ad­vanced to Round 2, but fell to the Tri-City Amer­i­cans 4-0 in their best-of-seven se­ries. Can the Roy­als reach this level of play­off ex­cite­ment this season?

Dante Han­noun at a train­ing ses­sion.

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