North Van Wolf Pack start over after dream season cut short by COVID-19

Junior B team reloads after setting PJHL record for wins last year

How do you celebrate a championship that you never actually got a chance to win?

That’s a lingering question for the North Van Wolf Pack Junior B hockey team as they prepare for the 2020-21 PJHL hockey season, which begins tonight.

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The Pack set a historic pace last season, winning an astounding 40 of their 44 regular season games to set new PJHL records for points and wins. The team then started to steamroll through the playoffs, looking like they were on their way to a potential championship which would have earned them a shot at winning their first ever provincial Junior B title at the Cyclone Taylor Cup.

But just as the PJHL championship final was set to begin, the COVID-19 crisis exploded. For the Wolf Pack the restrictions wiped out what was shaping up to be the end of a dream season.

Team head coach and general manager Matt Samson said that in the months following the shutdown, the Wolf Pack has tried to focus on all the positives of that season rather than the scuttled title run. He also emphasized that they all understand that there were far more important global issues at play than the fate of a junior hockey season.

“We obviously had a great run there and I think we were in pretty good shape to accomplish our goal of winning the league,” Samson told the North Shore News. “And then provincials is kind of a crapshoot four-day tournament, but we did everything we could to put ourselves in a position to accomplish that. It definitely stings what happened, of all the years for it to happen, but I think as time has gone by we’ve just focused on the accomplishments and staying in touch with the guys. It’s all positive – everything that happened was out of our control.”

The new season, with new COVID-19 protocols, is set to begin this week. And opening day may start to feel a bit like Groundhog Day for the Wolf Pack due to one of the most striking changes made for COVID-19. The league has divided into cohorts to limit the interactions between players. What that means for the Wolf Pack is that their first 18 games of the regular season will be played against just two teams – nine versus the Delta Ice Hawks and nine versus the Langley Trappers.

The schedule hasn’t been finalized yet, but that cohort play should keep the three teams locked in combat until nearly Christmas.

“It’s definitely different – you’re going to get to know the teams really well,” said Samson. “You almost treat it like a bit of a [playoff] series. … We’ll have to get creative.”

The schedule isn’t the only thing that will force the Wolf Pack to get creative. The team will also need to conjure up some new scoring, as all three of the top scorers from last season – Alex Suprynowicz, Lucas Barker and Dominic Davis – have moved on this year.

“There’s about 120 goals between those three guys that are leaving the team,” said Samson. “That’s a lot. Other guys are going to have to step up.”

Captain Ryan Stack will be expected to step into the lead role with veterans Jacob Fournier and Conner Jollymore joining him to form a potent top line. Returning players such as Joshua Peakman, Jack Steffens and Nicholas Frederick will be counted on to play larger roles, while Samson is expecting some rookie players to step in and contribute immediately as well.

On defence there will be even more spots to fill, as the team will be relying on 20-year-old Noah Brusse, a Whistler native who comes to North Van after winning the top defenceman award in the junior B Kootenay International Junior Hockey League with the Princeton Posse last season, along with a number of rookies.

It’ll also be two newcomers in goal with Damian Perovic and Samuel Gilmore splitting time between the pipes.

The regular season opener for the Wolf Pack will be next Saturday, Oct. 24 at Harry Jerome Arena in North Vancouver. There will be no spectators allowed for any PJHL games to start the season, and the teams and league are working out options for online broadcasts.

The Wolf Pack is also looking for a few more sponsors this season to make up for the lack of gate revenue. The money the team normally generates at home games usually just covers the cost of putting on the game, said Samson.

“We’re in a tough spot with no fans and losing a lot of revenue this year,” he said. “It’s been a bit of a grind. … Between our ice costs, our referee costs, the scorekeeper, stuff like that, we’re looking at about $1,000 [per home game] before we drop a puck.”

The season, however, will go on, and on the ice the Wolf Pack will look to keep up the high standards that have helped them become a perennial championship contender. Before last season Samson boldly set a goal of 40 wins – a goal the team impressively achieved – but there will be no such proclamations this season.  

“We’re not going to set a win number or anything like that, especially in a year like this it doesn’t really make sense – we don’t know how everything is going to end up looking,” he said. “We’ve worked to kind of establish ourselves as a destination for players in this league, a program that players want to come to, and it helps with our recruiting, it helps with our profile. … We want to be one of the top teams in the league again. There’s going to be a learning curve because we do have a lot of new players, but it’s not a rebuilding year – I’d say we’re reloading and trying to push for the top three in the league, however that’s going to look.”

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