Listen up: Royals’ eighth season opens at home Friday
Perennial playoff contender now a team in transition
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.
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.