Young Victoria Cougars looking to pounce as Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League begins

For the Victoria Cougars, their ability to ice one successful hockey team after another has been measured this year by holes on the roster. New faces will crowd the lineup on Thursday, when the Cougars open the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League regular season schedule against the Comox Valley Glacier Kings, facing off at 7 p.m. at Archie Browning Sports Centre.

“We’ve had lots and lots of turnovers,” team president Gary Boyer said. “It’s going to be really different this year.”

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On or near the top of the standings for the last decade, the Cougars are coming off back-to-back VIJHL playoff titles and silver medals at the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial championship, and other leagues have been watching. Five graduating 20-year-olds have moved to another level of hockey careers, and at least five others have signed with Junior A teams in the B.C. Hockey League.

“To turn over that many is really tough,” Boyer said. “Our coaching staff has done a tremendous job of recruiting, and bringing in talent from all over.”

The silver lining in losing so many quality players is that young up-and-comers see plenty of opportunity to get where they want to go through the Cougars and Junior B hockey. Coach Mark Van Helvoirt said the word travels fast that the Cougars have a good reputation for moving players onto the next level.

“The next thing you know you’ve got all these young prospects,” Van Helvoirt said. “For the coaching staff it’s a good challenge, and it’s also a lot of fun. They’re all sponges. They can’t ask enough questions.”

The new players had their chance to ask more questions after practice on Tuesday night, when they put on their suits and ties and gathered for orientation night. Besides getting new gear, they moved around to various stations explaining everything from Hockey Canada rules to medical staff.

“It gives the guys the idea this is going to be a second family for the next eight months or so,” said Mark Walton, who was named the Cougars captain this week. He estimated he’d been showing the ropes to some 14 newcomers on the roster. “The guys are good, and they’re keen to learn and picking up things really fast.”

Walton, 20, will definitely be one of the leaders on the team this season. At practice, he was skating behind a teammate, urging him on, during a brutal speed and endurance drill. In a news release, Van Helvoirt said Walton’s work ethic was second to none.

“I just cannot ask for a better role model or leader for this year’s team.”

The team will also be looking for leadership from third-year defenceman Graeme Zagrodney, who is also able to move off the blueline to take an offensive role.

Newcomers include “team first” forward Nick Bower of Boise, Idaho, and Michael Fretz, a forward from Snohomish, Wash., acquired this week in a trade with the Oceanside Generals. Last season, Fretz picked up 34 goals and 12 assists in 43 games with the Generals.

“He’s certainly a impressive player — a dynamic offensive player,” Van Helvoirt said.

In goal, the Cougars plan to rely on Connor Beauchamp, who previously played with Castlegar, the defending Kootenay International Junior Hockey League champions.

Given the changes, the Cougars aren’t likely to repeat the season they had last year, when they won 45 out of 48 games.

“It’s going to take a lot of dedication,” Walton said. “We have to take things step by step — set goals, and improve.”

ICE CHIPS: The Westshore Wolves kick off the VIJHL season tonight at 7 when they take on the Kerry Park Islanders at Juan de Fuca Arena. Once the Mann Cup lacrosse championship is finished, the Wolves will play at Bear Mountain Arena.

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