Determined Saanich Braves marching toward VIJHL supremacy

The Saanich Braves last spring ended a 22-year drought by making the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League playoff final for the first time since 1996. Jean Chrétien was prime minister and Bill Clinton the U.S. president back then, for those keeping count.

But the Braves are proving to be more than just a once-about-every-two-decades story in the VIJHL. They are dominating the league in 2018-19 at the 10-game pole and are off to a 9-0-1 start heading into tonight’s game against the Peninsula Panthers (3-4-4) at Pearkes Arena.

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The Saanich franchise has featured the likes of future NHLers Adam Cracknell and Matt Irwin, but it may not have had it as good as it does now. That’s despite losing goaltender Riley Mathieson, winner of the Jamie Benn Award as 2017-18 VIJHL MVP, and last season’s team-leading scorer Michael Sproule to graduation.

Those losses have been compensated by the return of 15 players from the Braves club that took the annual-powerhouse Campbell River Storm to seven games in the 2018 VIJHL final.

“We have a big returning core group that went through a huge learning experience last season by doing something this franchise hasn’t done in over 20 years,” said Braves head coach Sam Waterfield.

“Now the core is back and hungry to take that final step.”

The impact of this veteran infusion has been felt immediately.

“It took us until about mid-December last season to really get rolling. This season, it started from Day 1 in training camp. Everyone is doing what is expected of them.”

Waterfield cited his three 20-year-old forwards — Dale McCabe, Gavin Grewal and Kyle Mace — for providing stabilizing influences. Grewal has six goals and 16 points, Mace seven goals and 13 points and McCabe three goals and 12 points.

“Those three have been very good leaders for us on and off the ice,” said Waterfield.

The Braves’ blue-liners are led by 19-year-old captain Jake Wilhelm, who is proving he can also contribute offensively with two goals and 10 points.

Saanich believes it has the experience to overtake the Storm, the 2015, 2017 and 2018 league champions, who made their fourth-consecutive trip to the VIJHL final last spring in taking down the Braves.

It would be especially poignant for the Braves organization to finally lift the Brent Patterson Trophy as league champions — that final step referred to by Waterfield.

The late Patterson was a former VIJHL-champion Braves player and league MVP who died after suffering chest pains during a game in the 1977 Fred Cyclone Taylor Cup B.C. championship tournament in Quesnel.

The Storm are guaranteed a berth in the 2019 Fred Cyclone Taylor Cup as host of this season’s provincial Junior B tournament at Rod Brind’Amour Arena.

“We don’t want to get in the back door route [by losing again to Campbell River in the final but advancing as VIJHL runner-up because the Storm are Cyclone Taylor Cup hosts],” said Waterfield.

“We want to go in the front door.”

The Braves have been winning as if on cruise control over the first 10 games and are already 11 points clear of the second-place Victoria Cougars (5-4-1) in the South Division. But Waterfield doesn’t want his charges to get too comfortable.

“We can’t get too complacent,” said the Saanich bench boss.

“When you have a start like this, there is a tendency to think it will come easy the rest of the season.”

A wary Waterfield knows he must disabuse his players of that notion. Especially with the Storm (8-3) and Nanaimo Buccaneers (6-4-1) lurking in the North Division and looking to make statements of their own in the nine-team circuit.

ICE CHIPS: Football is the sport that comes abundantly to mind when it comes to the legendary expression Roll Tide at the University of Alabama. But they also skate and chase pucks down there. 2017-18 Westshore Wolves captain and VIJHL third-leading scorer Brandon Tutte (25 goals and 58 points in 40 games) has three goals and seven points in four games as a freshman with the Frozen Tide.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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