Matthew Wood has already captured two titles in the 2021-22 B.C. Hockey League season as leading goal and points scorer in just his rookie season to make his name for the 2023 NHL draft. But he is quick to point out that in a team sport, the collective is more important than the individual.
The main group quest for a championship with his Victoria Grizzlies teammates begins tonight and Saturday night in Langley with the opening two games of the Coastal Conference playoffs with the fifth-seed Grizzlies (29-25 in the regular season) taking on the fourth-seed Rivermen (33-18-3) in the best-of-seven opening round series. The third and fourth games are Tuesday and Wednesday at The Q Centre.
The Grizzlies finished 11 points behind the Rivermen — who led the Coastal Conference for much of the season — but Victoria won the season series 3-2.
“This series is definitely going to be a challenge. Both teams have good systems and both teams can score. We have to stick to how we play,” said Wood.
“We have a lot of depth and everyone can contribute. It’s a matter of everybody doing their jobs.”
The six-foot-three Canada U-17 player, a native of Nanaimo, lit up the BCHL in just his first season of junior.
“I was given a good opportunity right from the start with linemates like Ellis [Rickwood] and Connor [Eddy] and we became one of the unstoppable lines in the league,” said Wood.
That they were with Wood leading the way with 85 points in 46 games and Rickwood placing second in league points with 80 in 50 games. Wood’s 45 goals were five clear of league runner-up Josh Nadeau of the Penticton Vees. Eddy had 22 goals and 57 points.
The relationship between Wood and Rickwood was an interesting one for the Grizzlies because they represent the age bookends in junior hockey — the prodigy rookie who began the season as a 16-year-old and the 19-year-old veteran captain, who is heading next season to Clarkson University of NCAA Div. 1.
Wood may one day inherit that role as captain in future seasons and he watched Rickwood this season and learned.
“[Rickwood] is such a great leader,” said Wood, adding it’s not all about the on-ice stuff.
“It’s how he carries himself. It’s the things others don’t notice that true leaders do on the ice and off the ice for the teammates. You see that and you learn and say to yourself: ‘I want to be like that.’ ”
Wood will be like that and then some. His 2023 NHL draft class is shaping up to be a classic with himself, North Vancouver’s Connor Bedard of the WHL Regina Pats and Prince George Cougars WHL players Riley Heidt and Koehn Ziemmer, who have shown what they can do this season against the Victoria Royals.
“It’s an amazing class and I’m excited to see what happens in everybody’s careers,” said Wood.
“I want to see everybody in our age group do well and I think they will.”
But unlike the majority of that class, which is in major-junior, Wood is adamant to stay the course in Junior A and then NCAA Div. 1, in which he has committed to the University of Connecticut Huskies. Wood’s WHL rights are held by the Pats and he and Bedard would be a formidable B.C. duo in Regina. But that won’t be happening.
“I definitely have my heart set on the NCAA and UConn,” he said.
“It’s the right fit for me and my development, including schooling. I think I will be in a better, stronger position physically and mentally to turn pro from there at age 21 or 22.”
In the other Coastal Conference opening-round playoff series, the top-seed Alberni Valley Bulldogs (35-15-4) are the overwhelming favourites against the eighth-seed Cowichan Valley Capitals (15-33-6) beginning tonight and Saturday at Weyerhaeuser Arena in Port Alberni before switching to Duncan on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Bulldogs won the season series 7-2.
The second-seed Chilliwack Chiefs (33-17-4) take on the seventh-seed Coquitlam Express (22-26-6). Chilliwack won the season series 7-2.
The third-seed Nanaimo Clippers (33-17-4) meet the sixth-seed Surrey Eagles (28-26) beginning tonight and Saturday at Frank Crane Arena before heading to the Lower Mainland on Monday and Tuesday. Nanaimo won the season series 3-2-1.
The regular-season champion and annual powerhouse Vees (43-8-3) are the top seed heading into the Interior Conference playoffs and considered the favourites for the Fred Page Cup, emblematic of the BCHL playoff championship.
The Vees and Trail Smoke Eaters got the playoffs started Thursday night with the Smoke Eaters drawing first blood with a 5-3 victory over the Vees in Penticton.
LOOSE PUCKS: The Grizzlies will be without veteran defenceman Clark Hiebert for several more weeks as he continues to be out with an upper body injury.