Now that the abbreviated exhibition season is complete, the Nelson Leafs begin the 2020-21 Kootenay International Junior Hockey League regular season Friday in Castlegar against the Rebels.
The Sunflower City team is one of three of the teams — Osoyoos Coyotes and Grand Forks Border Bruins are the others — in the Murdoch Division with the Leafs.
Nelson defeated the Rebels twice this past weekend in a home-and-home series.
“I liked the speed we played with at times,” said Leafs assistant coach/GM Adam DiBella when asked about the brief exhibition season.
“Improving our consistency will be key as we move forward into the regular season.”
DiBella said the Leafs are excited to begin the new season, especially after COVID-19 squashed was was at the time a successful playoff drive as Nelson was leading rival Beaver Valley 2-0 in the best-of-seven Murdoch Final with the series shifting back to the Heritage City.
Not resting on last year’s success, management went out to build on last year’s success by to secure some depth by acquiring Liam McLaren, Matthew Byrne and Ethan McLaughlin from the Summerland Steam in an offseason move.
But a new season brings new players, and last weekend’s two games against Castlegar was a chance to see this new team in action.
“It was nice to see some signs of early chemistry between some players,” DiBella explained.
“I thought our goaltending in both games was exceptional. I also liked the demeanour of the group, there was lots of chatter on the bench and the energy never got too high or too low.”
In these COVID-19 times, KIJHL brass has had to work with provincial health bodies to secure a safe environment for players and coaches.
The plan now is to play the season in cohorts.
The other three KIJHL cohort division include:
- Kelowna Chiefs, Princeton Posse and Summerland Steam.
- Golden Rockets, Revelstoke Grizzlies and Sicamous Eagles.
- Chase Heat, Kamloops Storm and North Okanagan Knights.
The KIJHL season begins Friday on several fronts, with teams playing a shorted season within their cohort division.
Phase one runs until Christmas, with teams getting an extended break before resuming in four different cohort divisions.
However, the Leafs have Castlegar and Osoyoos Coyotes, the latter Saturday as Nelson opens up the home season at the NDCC Arena, on the radar screen to kick off the regular season.
“We expect two physical games,” said DiBella.
“Castlegar is tough to play against in their rink, they come out full of energy and intensity.
“Osoyoos turned over almost their entire roster from last season and are much improved. Both teams play a physical style and so do we so it should be almost a through back weekend of hockey.”
Leading the Leafs this year is captain Brandon Costa.
Costa, who played his minor hockey in Castlegar, is joined in the leadership group by assistants Hunter Floris, returning Leaf forward Tyler Pisiak and Ethan McLaughlin.
“We are really excited about Brandon’s potential this season to be the best player in the league,” said DiBella, adding Costa from day one of camp has led by example.
DiBella said Floris, who captained the Olds Grizzlies of the AJHL at 19, is a fun guy who brings a joyful energy to the rink and leads the group with his work ethic while Pisiak won’t let anyone on the ice outwork him.
DiBella said McLaughlin, a veteran defenceman, is already helping the younger players with tips he’s learned through his junior career.
LEAF NOTES: Due to COVID-19, no fans are allowed into KIJHL games. To watch the Leafs in action, and listen to new announcer Sheldon Button call the game, fans should click onto HockeyTV — the KIJHL's new streaming partner. Fans who sign up through opening weekend will save $80 off the regularly priced subscription of $249.