It’s a season of massive change for the North Vancouver Wolf Pack, but one thing that has stayed surprisingly steady is the team’s strong on-ice performance.
The PJHL junior B squad is off to a strong start in the 2021-'22 season, a year that will see them evicted from their home rink in December and follows 18 months of uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic. The Wolf Pack saw a dream season in 2019-'20 end on the eve of the championship final due to the start of the COVID crisis, followed by a 2020-'21 season in which they played a handful of games and then spent the rest of the year skating in limbo.
Add it all up and the Wolf Pack came into this season with a young roster that looked almost nothing like the team that set a ridiculous league record by winning 40 of their 44 games the last time they played a full campaign, a total that smashed the PJHL record for most victories in a season.
At the start of this season, the Wolf Pack roster featured no 20-year-old "overage" players and only three 19-year-olds. Compared to the old wolves of previous championship runs, these players are just pups.
“We knew we were going to be a younger team this year, we kind of made that commitment,” said head coach and general manager Matt Samson. “It’s the youngest team that I’ve had in – I’m going to say – at least eight years. It’s a very young team. I've never had a team without at least one 20-year-old in all my years of coaching junior hockey.”
It was a youth-movement rebuild, but what happened when the Wolf Pack hit the ice for regular season play at the start of September? They started winning, of course.
The Pack won four of their first five games, with the other game ending in a shootout loss. (Another game was halted in the second period after a player suffered a serious injury). Their first regulation loss came on Saturday at home against the Richmond Sockeyes, but North Van remains tied for the highest winning percentage in their conference so far and has outscored their opponents 23-14.
It’s just one month, but it’s a pretty good one for a team that came into the season expecting some rebuilding ups and downs.
“The group has really impressed me,” said Samson. “We’re faster than I thought we were going to be, and the boys are really buying in, and they want to come to practice every day and get better. There are a lot of players I believe that are going to play at a higher level after this, so their habits in practice and their attention to detail and their focus and their listening – that's all really good, because they do have aspirations of playing on. … I've already seen in two months with some of these guys the improvement, so as a coach it is rewarding.”
Samson laughed when asked about veteran leaders on the team, given that very few team members have much experience at all at the junior level.
“When I say ‘returners’ it’s almost in air quotes,” he said. “They're going from guys that were potentially not even in the lineup and just getting their feet wet in junior hockey [in the 2019-'20 season], to not having a season because of COVID, and now fast forward a year later and you're asking them to be leaders on your team. It's really, really strange. And they’ve done a great job.”
Alex Binette, one of the three 19-year-olds, got the nod as the team’s captain, while the trio of J.J. Pickell, David Coyle and Corson Penman has so far taken the lead as the squad’s top-scoring line. Forward Ryan Hunter has also stepped into a leadership role, said Samson, while goalkeepers Samuel Gilmore and Damian Perovic have formed a strong tandem so far.
“We need a lot of players to sort of step up and lead,” said Samson. “We're asking a lot of these young players, but they've been doing a good job so far.”
While the team is busy getting comfortable on the ice, they will face some discomfort off it as they will be forced to move out of Harry Jerome Arena in December as the rec centre is set to be torn down and rebuilt over the next few years. The tentative plan is for the team to set up a temporary home at Karen Magnussen Arena until the new Harry Jerome is ready. It’ll be nice to have a new arena built, said Samson, but the move is making things a little trickier for the team this season.
“There's just things that we never had to worry about for eight seasons that we were in North Vancouver, now it's going to be a big change,” he said. “It'll be a challenge. We're definitely gonna miss where we are, but we'll get through it.”
Meanwhile, Samson has done some revisions to his on-ice team goals following the Wolf Pack’s strong start.
“A top-two finish in our division would be good, and give us home ice advantage [in the playoffs],” he said. “I think that’s a realistic goal. I think maybe a month ago I might not have thought that, but I think a top-two in our conference is something that’s attainable and we can work towards.”
No matter what happens in the standings, the biggest victory for the team – and the rest of the league – is just getting to play games again, said Samson, adding that last season in particular was difficult as the teams played just a few games and then spent the rest of the year waiting for a return-to-play protocol that never arrived.
“It was really tough last year just showing up and practising, and you’re sort of getting a carrot dangled,” he said. “Everybody was sort of waiting and hoping for good news, and it never came. … It just kind of gave you false hope for six or seven months and nothing really happened. It was just really, really disappointing, and it was hard to come to the rink every day as a coach and try to be the positive person and try to get the guys to buy in when at the end of the day you had no idea what was going on.”
That’s not a problem this season.
“It's really exciting,” he said about having a full schedule again. “This year I find myself just really enjoying being at the rink and sticking around a little bit longer and just kind of soaking it all in. I got a little bit of re-energize as a coach. … You can see these players really missed that competition.”