It’s a clean slate for the Victoria Cougars who lose their reputation but not their identity as they start the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial junior B hockey championships in Abbotsford on Thursday (April 12).
The Cougars relied on a more disciplined strategy in 2011-12, and so far it’s worked, winning the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League championship for the first time since 2008.
The strategy helped create a reputation that the Cougars don’t fight back, a reputation both the Kerry Park Islanders and Peninsula Panthers tested in the playoffs. And both paid dearly, as the Cougars rode their powerplay to go 8-1 through those two series.
“Mostly our team likes to get under the skin of others and stay disciplined, and let our power play capitalize,” said assistant captain Mark Walton. “We’ve had it stressed in our room. We aren’t out there to take stupid penalties.”
Though they’ve had similar seasons, in terms of discipline and power play success, the Cougars don’t directly model their play after the Vancouver Canucks. But in thinking about it, Walton admitted there’s at least one connection.
“You can say that, the way (the Canucks) use their discipline. I’m like (Alexandre) Burrows, or at least I try to be similar,” short of finger munching his opponents.
Though fighting happens less with the Cougars than other teams, it’s still junior hockey, and Walton is the most likely combatant of the Cougars’ forwards.
“If it needs to be done, it needs to be done,” he said. “But only in the right time and place.”
Walton, a second-year forward, was third in team penalties during the regular season behind defencemen Robert Zadra and Rhys Williams, collecting most of his penalty minutes by way of fighting majors and misconducts. But Walton was also fifth in scoring on the Cougars, no small feat on the No. 1- ranked junior B team in the province. At just 18, the ‘A’ on Walton’s chest is a testament to the team’s overall maturity and team chemistry.
“We had a team day on Saturday where we showed up early to the rink and played road hockey from 2 p.m. until practice started at 6:30 p.m. It was fun, and it shows it’s all hands on deck and everyone’s super focused right now,” Walton said.
On a break since winning the VIJHL’s Brent Patterson Memorial Trophy on March 24, the Cougars are coming out of their third “training camp.” Second training camp was back in February when the Cougars enjoyed a first-round bye from the VIJHL playoffs.
“(Coach Mark Van Helvoirt) has made sure our conditioning is kept up to par all year, so during this break we actually went through all the steps you’d do at the beginning of the year.”
The team has been practising out of Bear Mountain Arena of late, closer to home for Walton, a Belmont secondary grad and former Juan de Fuca minor hockey player.
“It’s odd to still be playing junior hockey while the NHL playoffs are on. And to see the Victoria Grizzlies (BCHL) spring prospect camp going. That was me just a few years ago.”
Many a player tried to get under the skin of the Victoria Cougars this year, and most of them failed. Most teams played the intimidation card and backed it up with physical play against the Cougars, and it made the Cougars’ lives that much harder this year.
But it never derailed them.
During the regular season the Cougars’ had the most power play opportunities (301 times), were shorthanded the least (195 times), and were first in power play goals with 76, 28 more than the second-place Peninsula Panthers.
Then when the playoffs started, the Islanders and Panthers both ignored these facts and literally threw sticks, elbows, knees and punches at the Cougars.
The results spoke for itself, with the Cougars scoring a record 11 power play goals in a 12-1 elimination win of the Islanders. They then torched the Panthers, outscoring Peninsula 21-4 in a four-game sweep.
The Cyclone Taylor Cup opens Thursday with the Cougars facing the host team, Abbotsford Pilots at 7:30 p.m.
Game 1: April 12 Beaver Valley Nitehawks vs. Delta Ice Hawks, 3 p.m. Game 2: April 12 Abbotsford vs. Cougars, 7:30 p.m. Game 3: April 13, Beaver Valley vs. Cougars, 3 p.m. Game 4: April 13, Abbotsford vs. Delta, 7:30 p.m. Game 5: April 14, Delta Ice Hawks vs. Cougars 3 p.m.
Game 6: April 14, Abbotsford vs. Beaver Valley.
Bronze medal: April 15, 11 a.m.
Gold medal: April 15, 3 p.m.