After his Surrey Knights earned their first win of the season Saturday in Mission (Sept. 18), rookie head coach Andy Liboiron savoured the moment at a local pub, along with other team staff members.
After all, it was the first victory in nearly two years for the Pacific Junior Hockey League franchise, due in part to the COVID-caused shutdown last season, and some “chirping” ensued in the establishment.
“It was an exciting night,” Liboiron said after the Knights’ 3-2 shootout win over the Outlaws. “Some of the locals wondered why we were so dressed up and we told them about our hockey team and the win. So they joked, ‘Ah, you’re from Surrey, you’re a bunch of losers.’ We politely let them know that we weren’t anymore, after beating Mission. They got a chuckle out of that.”
North Delta-raised goaltender Rahul Sharma was the game’s first star for the Knights, who were fueled by regulation-time goals from Trevor Damon and Tyson Benoit, along with Jake Thompson’s lone shootout tally.
Home again Thursday (Sept. 23) against Delta Ice Hawks, the Knights have two points in the standings after a pair of season-opening losses at North Surrey Sport & Ice Complex, to Langley Trappers (by a score of 5-0) and White Rock Whalers (6-3).
News from @SurreyKnights: Role swap with new head coach Andy Liboiron (right) taking over from Gerry Leiper (left), who is now assistant coach of the @ThePJHL team. Spotted at @Globalcamps Van. https://t.co/TJdfQnuhPv for camp/season info. pic.twitter.com/ZYwD4V2fG7— Tom Zillich (@TomZillich) July 10, 2021
Liboiron, 30, has taken over bench-boss duties from Gerry Leiper, who will focus on general-management work for the Knights and also serve as an associate coach.
Originally from Kitchener, Liboiron played junior hockey in Ontario before moving west.
“I always thought about coaching but had never really pursued it,” he recalled. “I met Gerry (Leiper) when I moved out to B.C. and he was involved with the Knights. I started just volunteering with the team and helping out where I could. It got more serious when I stepped into an assistant-coaching role, eventually leading me to this year (as head coach), and that allowed me to take the reigns here and implement a program I think can change the fortunes of the franchise.”
Horrible in recent seasons, the Knights have scored just five wins since moving from Langley to Surrey in 2016. At one point, the team went two years without a win.
“Coming in with a fresh set of eyes, I think the biggest thing for us is focusing on that culture, bringing guys in who were leaders on their previous teams, guys that showed resilience, hard work and really focus on creating basically a family,” Liboiron noted.
“We want everyone pulling on the same rope at the same time in the same direction, and we think we have the group that can do that this year.… We’re happy with how they’ve come together so far. There’s some great character in the room.”
Back in 2010, Liboiron won gold with Team Canada at a world ball-hockey championship tournament in Villach, Austria.
“It was a cool experience,” he recalled, “and I got to see what it takes to play at a very high level, and definitely took some learning experiences from that. We had a really good team, played with guys who played pro hockey, so we ended up winning the gold there. It was a fun couple of weeks, that’s for sure.”
On ice, he saw some resilience from his Knights after the home team was down 5-0 to the Whalers last Thursday (Sept. 16), after the first period. In the second, Surrey scored thrice to make a game of it.
“That was a pivotal period,” Liboiron said. “It definitely had a part to play in the guys believing they can play at this level. We have a very young team, very inexperienced, and just to see them battle back (against the Whalers), to show some resilience, that was awesome to see, and we’ve been able to build off that. They need to learn what it takes to win at this level, too.”