The Swift Current Broncos went to the top of the heap in 2018 to win their first Western Hockey League championship in 25 years. It’s part of a recent drought-ending trend as the Seattle Thunderbirds in 2017 won their only WHL title in the 43-year history of the franchise and the Prince Albert Raiders last season captured their first WHL championship in 34 years.
But the Broncos’ comedown from their fleeting moment of championship glory two years ago has been sharp and defined. They went a league-worst 11-51-6 last season. The rebuild continues this season as the Broncos come into Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre 2-5-2 and winless in five games.
It sets up a battle between two struggling teams. The host Victoria Royals are 2-4-1 and winless in four games.
“It gives us a place to work from and go up,” said Royals forward Kaid Oliver.
“We’ve got to keep working hard. Look at the St. Louis Blues last season. You never know. It’s a matter of getting the points when you can in the regular season and getting into the playoffs, where anything can happen.”
That’s a long way off with a lot of season yet to be played.
The Royals’ early season has been pockmarked with injuries and it didn’t offer up much encouragement to see the likes of Carson Miller, Phillip Schultz and Jacob Herauf watching Thursday’s practice from the sidelines.
“Injuries happen to every team at some point,” said a philosophical Oliver.
The Royals’ 2018-19 leading points scorer has experienced it himself, and in a major way, as Oliver missed the playoffs last spring and the early part of this season following shoulder surgery.
“We’re fighting through it,” added Oliver, who has five assists in four games since his return to the lineup.
“It builds character. A lot of guys are playing through the kinds of minutes they aren’t used to. It’s tough right now, but we’ll be better for it.”
Injured forwards Schultz, Gary Haden, Graeme Bryks and blue-liner Herauf are listed as day-to-day. Forwards Miller and Alex Bolshakov are week-to-week.
“It’s frustrating but team injuries are no excuse,” said Royals forward Brandon Cutler, who is on three assists and looking for his first goal of the season.
“We are not competing to our standards and to the standard expected of us. I’ve not had the start myself that I’ve wanted and neither has the team. But we’re excited because we know it’s coming and it’s going to happen. We just have to stick to the fundamentals and focus on executing.”
A player to watch on the Broncos is Kasper Puutio, projected for the second or third rounds of the 2020 NHL draft. Former Royals defenceman Jake Kustra is also on Swift Current, although he is listed as day-to-day heading into tonight.
The Royals conclude the weekend Sunday at the Langley Events Centre against the 2019 WHL-finalist Vancouver Giants, who are having their own issues. Vancouver’s 6-5 record is respectable but must be measured against the club’s lofty expectations as overwhelming favourites for the B.C. Division crown.