While it may be only September, and the last time hockey fans looked the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League Championship Trophy is hoisted in March, there remains a sense of optimism coming from inside the NDCC Arena as the Junior B League kicks off the season Friday on several fronts.
A new-look management team combined with a solid returning core and a strong recruiting class has Nelson Leafs head coach Mario DiBella feeling confident as the Leafs join 19 other teams in the run up to the KIJHL Championship.
“I feel as a team we’ve done a great job recruiting,” DiBella said, tipping his hat to new GM Lance Morey for leaving no stone unturned this offseason in an effort to put the best team on the ice.
“We’ve got several AAA Midget kids coming in and have been able to source a number of other players. So, we ‘re just really excited about the group of players and team that we have.”
The addition of Morey during the offseason allowed DiBella to reduce his own travels schedule to spring and summer camps.
And why not?
Morey has a wealth of hockey contacts and experience as scout for the West Kelowna Warriors of the BC Hockey League.
And did we tell you that these are the same Warriors that won the BCHL Fred Page Cup Title in 2016.
“Lance Morey has been a tremendous help,” DiBella exclaimed.
“He spent countless hours on the phone and email getting these players here and confirming that they’re coming. . .. Offering them Plan B when they’re Junior A aspirations didn’t turn out that Nelson was a very good second option.”
“And that’s been a very huge load off the rest of us,” DiBella added.
DiBella, a goaltender by trade, said the Leafs will be strong between the pipes with former Leaf Josh Williams back in the fold after spending last year in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
However, DiBella believes he has a 1A netminder in backup Quinn Yeager, who is expected to push Williams this season to the top spot between the pipes.
“Quinn is a phenomenal goalie,” DiBella said, glowingly comparing Yeager to Beaver Valley’s KIJHL champion backstopper of last season, Tallon Kramer.
“He’s quick, agile and always square to the puck.
“Quinn has proven in training camp that everything we saw of him during the spring is the package we’re getting here.”
The defence is going to be just as strong as the Leafs welcome Michael LeNoury, Zack Morey and Brendan Makay back from last season.
Add in rookies Michael Bladon and Ethan Land and as well as the return of stalwart rearguard Dash Thompson back from Junior A, and the Leafs have quite the solid blueline core.
The forward line is just as strong with Sawyer Hunt, back for his final season, joined by Ryan Piva, Logan Wullum and Jack Karran.
Rookie Ryan Cooper, a scoring machine from AAA Midget, and Nelson Minor Hockey grad Justin Podgorenko who played last season in Castlegar, gives the Leafs a forward line that should improve the 13th ranked offence of a year ago.
However, Leaf faithful have seen this movie before . . . since 2010, the last time Nelson advanced to the KIJHL final before losing to Revelstoke Grizzlies in five games.
Friday, it all starts for real when Beaver Valley Nitehawks visit the NDCC Arena for a 7 p.m. puck drop.
Saturday, Kimberley Dynamiters complete the two-game opening weekend for the Leafs.
Next week, Nelson concludes the four-game home stand with games against Fernie Friday, September 15, and Columbia Valley, Saturday, September 16.
“Sure it’s early, but we have a good product on the ice so we want to take advantage of our training camp and put some points up on the board during this early home stand,” DiBella said.
“We had good exhibition season,” he adds.
“But now that we’re keeping score for keeps so we need to make sure that we’re ready to play and get the results that we’re looking for.”
BLUELINES: The Leafs have unveiled their leadership team for the upcoming season. Right winger Sawyer Hunt is back as captain with defencemen Zach Morey and Michael Lenoury as well as forward Logan Wullum the assistants.