Braves return with new coach, younger team

Veteran goalie Riley Mathieson ready to shoulder load for Saanich Braves

The return of junior hockey marks the first game action in seven months for 19-year-old Dale McCabe.

McCabe is back to lead the Saanich Braves as they open the 2017-18 Vancouver Island Junior B Hockey League season at home at Pearkes arena, Friday at 6:30 p.m. against the Peninsula Panthers. On Sept. 9 they travel to Campbell River to face the defending league champion Storm.

Last year McCabe broke out with 48 points in 35 games, second overall in scoring on the Braves, until a dislocated shoulder injury ended his season in January. He was a big part of the Braves’ biggest season in recent history, finishing third overall in the VIJHL regular season with 29 wins behind only the two conference champions, the Victoria Cougars and the Campbell River Storm.

“I’m happy to be back,” McCabe said. “I had surgery to fix the [shoulder] tissue, it’s feeling good but a little stiff.”

McCabe was enjoying playing on a line with 2016-17 league MVP Nick Guerra. Losing McCabe was a blow to the team, as he missed the last 11 games and all six games in the first-round playoff exit against the underdog Kerry Park Islanders.

RELATED: League MVP leads Braves into playoffs

Last week McCabe played a BCHL exhibition match for the Cowichan Capitals but for now, he’s a Brave, and he’ll play a big role if the club can find any early success.

“We are a younger team, we’ll need to work hard,” McCabe said.

The goal is to get back to Junior A, hopefully by Christmas. In the meantime, he’s happy to carry the responsibility as a team leader on a youthful Braves team.

“Last year the team was older, we had all eight 20-year-old spots filled, so this year we’ll be a lot more youthful,” said new coach Sam Waterfield. “It’s a bit of a rebuild, and hopefully we can pick up a couple of [players] and be able to contend down the stretch when it matters.”

From now until Christmas will be a learning curve for the younger players, Waterfield added.

While all of the Braves players at BCHL camps have since returned, the club is still waiting on two more: Quinton Waltzner, who’s skating in training camp with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos, and Ted Brennan, who’s looking to stay with the Kelowna Rockets.

“Hopefully they stick with those clubs,” Waterfield said. “Right now, a big part of getting ready for the season is recruiting, hoping to pull a couple more players out of Junior A camps.”

If there’s an ace in hand for the Braves, it’s returning goalie Riley Mathieson.

The 20-year-old is excited to finish his junior career in Saanich, coming off a solid 17-win season with the Braves that included a six-week stint as part of the Victoria Royals organization.

“This year the amount of experience has pushed me to a level, where, if I can hold myself at a certain standard, I can help these guys win every night,” Mathieson said.

With one college offer in hand for this season, Mathieson comes back looking to earn more offers.

“This is the year where you just leave it all out there. You forget about everything, you just play hockey and give it your all.”

reporter@saanichnews.com

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