The Surrey Eagles have a new head coach.
The BC Hockey League team announced Friday that former Chilliwack Chiefs associate coach Cam Keith had been hired to lead the South Surrey junior ‘A’ squad.
“He’s well-respected in our league and somebody we’ve brought in here to help recruit and put a winner on the ice for us,” Eagles general manager Blaine Neufeld told Peace Arch News, just prior to the team’s official announcement Friday morning.
“He’s hit the ground running here already, (trying to recruit) a couple players who he thinks will be here next season.”
The Eagles had been without a permanent head coach since firing Peter Schaefer last November, midway through the just-completed season. Assistant coach Linden Saip served as interim head coach during the second half of the season after Schaefer was relieved of his duties.
Keith, 38, joins the Birds after just one season in Chilliwack, where he was an associate coach and associate general manager on head coach/GM’s Brian Maloney’s staff. The Chiefs finished as the top team in the BCHL during the regular season, but were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Prince George Spruce Kings.
Prior to his tenure with the Chiefs, Keith spent two season as the head coach and general manager of the Trail Smoke Eaters, leading the Smokies to an overall regular-season record of 58-47-9-2, earning a spot in the playoffs both years.
Before taking the reins of the Smoke Eaters, Keith spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones.
He is also a former BCHL player, having played for the Victoria Salsa and Smoke Eaters over a three-year period, before moving on to play four seasons in the NCAA at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
From 2003 until retiring as a player in ’14, Keith bounced between the ECHL and the American Hockey League, and also played professionally overseas.
“He has a great track record of developing kids and moving them on (to the next level),” Neufeld said. “We’re just really excited because we think he can come in and immediately help our group.”
Keith will certainly stabilize a head-coaching position that has been something of a revolving door since training camp last August.
Just prior to the Eagles opening camp, head coach Brandon West abruptly quit, with the team saying he had “mutually agreed to part ways with the team.” In a news release at the time, the team cited “personal reasons” for West’s departure, though a week later, in a text to a PAN reporter, West said that personal reasons were not the reasons for his resignation, though he declined to go into further detail.
West – who led the Eagles to their first playoff appearance in four seasons – is now the head coach of the West Kelowna Warriors.
To replace West, the Eagles promoted Schaefer to the top job. He’d had a previous stint as both an Eagles assistant and head coach, and had been re-hired by the team as an assistant only a few months prior, in late July.
Schaefer was fired in November, and replaced with Saip, after the team stumbled to a record of 7-23-0-1 (win-loss-overtime loss-shootout loss).
Team owner and president Chuck Westgard said in a news release Friday that he was excited to turn his young team over to Keith.
“This is a very exciting day for us,” he said. “We wanted to make a statement by finding a coach who can instantly aid in recruiting and developing our young players. We have hopefully taken care of some rumours about the direction of our hockey club with this decision, and I can assure that Cam allows us to carry out our vision of bringing a winning culture back to South Surrey.”
Westgard’s comments about the direction of the team echo what he told PAN in a conversation earlier this month. At that time – with the team just a few weeks removed from a league-worst finish – Westgard promised change, noting that the constant coaching turnover during the 2018/19 season was not ideal.
“We brought Peter in, then Brandon left… we can second-guess ourselves over and over again, but things just didn’t work. Every time we turned around, things seemed to go wrong. It was (a season) we’d just kind of like to move on from,” said Westgard, who has owned the team since the 2010-’11 season.
”There will be some changes, no doubt about that. We’re going to look at every part of the organization… you can’t just stick your head in the sand – that’s not going to work, either.”
Both Saip and fellow assistant coach Brad Tobin will return next season.
Both Westgard and Neufeld noted a desire to return a sense of stability to the roster, as well. Last season, due to injuries and trades, more than 40 players suited up for the team – including 14 different affiliate players. As well, eight different goaltenders played at least one game. The year before, the team cycled through four netminders.
During the season, the team made about a dozen trades, “which is pretty normal when you’re a team that’s struggling, and not just struggling, but you’re at the bottom of the league,” Westgard said.
“You know, you start to make moves… You don’t make panic moves, but you figure, ‘Oh, we’ll just push some buttons here and see if we can turn this thing around with a little bit of luck.’ Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
This fall, the team will return a solid core – Neufeld said as many as 17 players are eligible to return – led by forwards Matthew McKim, Holden Katzalay and Brandon Santa Juana.
On the goaltending front, Neufeld reserved comment on specifics, but did say “We would absolutely love more stability in net.”
Next up for the Eagles is a spring camp set for the May long weekend.
“Then it’ll be September before you know it,” said Westgard.
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