It may come as a surprise to some to see an expansion hockey team reel off a string of impressive victories in short order, with some coming against top teams.
New squads are, traditionally, bottom-feeders in the early going – grist for the mill as they’re chewed up by more established, more experienced teams.
Members of the White Rock Whalers – the Pacific Junior Hockey League’s newest squad – don’t seem to have received the memo, however. The squad ended its October portion of the schedule with three wins and one overtime loss, and they’ve added another victory in November, too. Heading into this weekend, the Whalers sport a respectable, very un-expansion-team-like record of 6-11-0-1 (win-loss-tie-overtime loss).
They’re just five points back of the Port Moody Panthers in the PJHL’s Tom Shaw Conference, and league-wide, they have as many points as the Mission City Outlaws and are way up on the still-winless Surrey Knights.
One person who isn’t as surprised at the team’s recent string of victories is the team’s head coach, who told Peace Arch News this is about the time he expected his group to begin to gel.
“Going into September, it was a real tough schedule, especially for an expansion team – we had three games in the first week, I think,” explained Jason Rogers.
“But then the month of October, things start to open up a bit. When we looked at the (schedule) we kind of identified that month as the time where, with a little more practice time, a few more video sessions – plus the guys just being around each other a bit longer (by then) – we figured that might be a month where we’d have a little bit of success.
“Some of the systems we’ve implemented, some of the work we’ve done – we’ve started to see a return on that. That was our goal for the month of October – to finish above .500, which we accomplished.”
The October run began with a 3-0 shutout over Port Moody on Oct. 12, and the team followed that with a win four days later over the Aldergrove Kodiaks.
The shutout – credited to goaltender Jonathan Holloway – was the first in team history, and when asked, Rogers pointed to that game, plus a Nov. 1 win over the defending league champion Richmond Sockeyes, as moments one could identify as turning points.
“That stretch where we went into Port Moody and shut them out, and then… went to Aldergrove and had to learn how to protect a lead, those were big moments for us,” he said. “And the Richmond game, that was as well as we’ve played all year.”
What followed the victory over the Sockeyes – a 7-0 loss to Abbotsford two days later – wasn’t ideal, Rogers admitted, but such are the trials and tribulations of a brand-new team.
Looking ahead to a very busy rest-of-the-month – the Whalers have 10 games schedules over 30 days in November – Rogers was buoyed by the fact that, not only has the team began to play disciplined and more structured, they’re beginning to get offensive contributions from everyone.
As well, their goaltending tandem of Zach Everett and Holloway has been solid, he noted, and the team has a bona fide first line of Greg Porter, Saul Khalifa and Matt Rogers.
“I think we’ve identified that line as one that can line up against any other line in the league,” Rogers said. “They’ve been carrying a lot of the load for us, of late, but we do have some depth scoring after that.
“I think every forward has scored a goal this year, except maybe one or two. Those guys in this league who are (consistent) two- or three-point-a-game guys, we don’t have them in our system just yet, so we score by committee. That was our plan from the start – play disciplined and have everybody chip in.”
As for his goaltending tandem, Rogers said the plan for now is to continue to rotate them in and out of the crease, rather than settle into a starter/backup situation. So far this year, Everett has played in 14 games and Holloway – who joined the team during the season via trade – has appeared in nine. Both have save-percentages at .900 or higher.
“Zach carried the load for us during a very difficult time, in September – he played a ton – and now for Jono to come in and take some games and then earn a few more has been good,” Rogers explained.
“I think we have a 1A and 1B here right now. (This month), we’ll need both guys – we’re basically playing every third day, so rest is important, recovery is important. Maybe in December, when things slow down a bit, we’ll find a goalie that we want to run with, but we’re not there yet.”
Another player who has been key to the team’s recent success is defenceman Cam Newson, a 16-year-old Semiahmoo Peninsula native in his first-year of junior hockey. The blue-liner currently leads the team in scoring with five goals and 13 points in 18 games.
Rogers said the young rearguard “has a bright future in junior hockey” and doesn’t expect him back for a second season at the junior ‘B’ level.
“Cam has exceeded expectations. For a young guy, he’s been playing a lot of minutes for us so it’s been a little bit of baptism by fire… we’re happy to have him onboard right now.”
White Rock’s busy schedule continues this Remembrance Day weekend, with the team set for two afternoon games at Centennial Arena. On Saturday at 12:15 p.m., the Whalers will square off against the Sockeyes and on Monday afternoon, at 12:30 p.m., they’ll host Mission.
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