Cam Hope is no stranger when it comes to dealing with hockey players. But now he does it at an earlier point in the continuum, having made the switch from the pros as New York Rangers assistant GM to the junior ranks in the Western Hockey League as rookie GM of the Victoria Royals.
He has proven a quick study.
“The biggest difference is how much the juniors change over the course of the season,” said Hope.
“You’re in the developmental curve. A 25-year-old in the AHL is pretty much going to be the same player. But a 16-year-old can change fundamentally from September to April. It’s a steeper learning curve.”
Whatever Hope and rookie Royals head coach Dave Lowry are doing seems to be working this season. Heading into Saturday night action across the WHL, they had a young Victoria team (31-19-4) tenuously in fourth place in the Western Conference behind the CHL national top-10 ranked Portland Winter Hawks, Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers.
The Spokane Chiefs and Tri City Americans met late Saturday night in an eastern-Washington derby that was set to affect Victoria in the standings.
The Royals are at Spokane tonight to play the Chiefs in another pivotal game in the razor’s-edge race between the Royals, Chiefs and Americans for the fourth-through-sixth spots in the conference.
The fourth-place team earns home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. The fifth-place team will at least avoid Portland, Kelowna and Kamloops. The sixth-place team will have to play one of those three heavyweights, likely Kamloops, in the opening round.
“The [Royals] team is performing the way we expected it to, but is maybe ahead of where we thought it would be in the standings,” Hope said.
“Whether four-to-six [in the tables], our team is our team. We are not going to out-talent anyone this season. But we are working harder [than other teams]. We play four 16-year-olds every night and they contribute.”
One of the misconceptions about junior hockey is that fans can follow a player in the same jersey for four years. Hope said one of the biggest surprises has been how much turnover there can be on a junior roster. He said the Rangers averaged between 10 to 13 player turnover/moves a season in the NHL, and the Royals will come close to that since he took over last summer.
Meanwhile, Royals captain Tyler Stahl is eligible to return tonight in Spokane after the blueliner sat out an eight-game suspension for a hitting-to-the head penalty on Jan. 25.
The Royals are expected to again be missing leading-scorer Alex Gogolev, who received several stitches after being cut in the leg in a game last week against Seattle at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, while other injured forwards have been Trent Lofthouse, Logan Nelson and Luke Harrison.
The Royals have won four consecutive games and began a six-game road trip, encompassing 11 days, with a 5-3 victory Friday night in Tri City against the Americans.
The next Royals home date is Feb. 22 against the Kelowna Rockets when Victoria begins a five-game home-stand on Blanshard.
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