With more new players than returning ones, the Surrey Knights are looking to rebound during the COVID-challenged junior hockey season to come.
Gerry Leiper, the PJHL team’s head coach and general manager, has added 14 players to his 25-strong roster, which includes 11 who have remained with the club after another difficult year in 2019-20.
“We are definitely much better than last year,” Leiper said of his lineup.
“However, I’m not sure how we will fare,” he added. “The target is a moving target. We lost a test 6-1 last week (in an exhibition game against White Rock Whalers on Oct. 10, at Langley Sportsplex). We were solid through half the game but in the end, lost. So we will see.”
Out of the gate, the PJHL’s four cohorts include one involving the Knights, Whalers, Aldergrove Kodiaks and Ridge Meadows Flames, as part of the league’s revamped 36-game schedule this season.
The Knights’ first game will be played Wednesday, Oct. 21 against Aldergrove Kodiaks, at Aldergrove Credit Union Community Arena, followed by a game against White Rock the next night (Thursday, Oct. 22) at North Surrey Sport & Ice Complex.
“We’ve been practicing for a month and a half,” Leiper said. “We are ready.”
At this time, fans are not permitted to attend PJHL games due to current COVID-19 building restrictions.
For each game, Leiper can ice a maximum roster of nine forwards, six defensemen and two goalies, with another eights players available when injuries and illness call for additional help. “Starting soon we will be allowed to go 12 forwards, but probably not until November.”
The team’s full roster is posted to surreyknights.ca.
Returning players include forwards Ayodeji Ajayi, Dion Fowler, Mitchell MacLeod, Brandon Melsness, Dayton Milligan and Drew Williams, defensemen Bradley Collins, Edward Ridell, Ben Wasmuth and Sam Wasmuth, and goaltender Jarek Blackmon.
“We traded for Ethan Gourley and Montaro Uyeyama from Delta Ice Hawks. Both are skilled guys who can score,” Leiper said.
“But before them I added the Thompson brothers (Owen and Jacob), who are 19 and 16 years old,” he added. “Once I added them, everything started coming our way. All the players on our wish list started checking in with us.”
Leiper compared the Thompsons to Daniel and Henrik Sedin for their playmaking abilities. “Great kids to boot,” he said.
Also added to the roster were Darian Tamas and Owen Thibodeau, from Semiahmoo and Cloverdale minor hockey associations.
“Tamas is excellent on D,” Leiper said. “And Thibodeau is super fast, with the hardest snap shot on the team.”
Nickolas Rota was also added from the Ice Hawks (“a slick offensive defenseman who is fast, shifty and gritty tough,” Leiper noted). “Another good add for us was Anton Shopoval from Semi AAA – a skilled, fast forward who is gonna light it up,” he added. “And Logan Earle from New West is another 16-year-old who is a skilled rushing defenseman we added.”
Blackmon is back in goal, with help from rookies Rahul Sharma and Benjamin Skulski.
Last February, the Knights finished the 2019-20 season with just a single win, and have just a handful of victories since moving to Surrey from Langley in the fall of 2016.
Last fall, the franchise vacated the old North Surrey Arena for a move into the new North Surrey Sport & Ice Complex. The team looked for better results on the ice, but the wins didn’t come.
“I can’t recall the exact number,” Leiper noted last February, “but it’s 14 or 15 games this year that were a one-goal loss for us, so if we had just one more guy to put the puck in, and we win even 50 per cent of those games, that’s a game-changer for us.”
To start the PJHL season, teams will only be allowed to play games against the other teams in their cohort for the first half of the season. In December, the league will break for the required 14-day quarantine period, then the cohorts will be shuffled for the remainder of the season.
The PJHL’s Cohort #1 will involve Grandview Steelers, Port Moody Panthers and Richmond Sockeyes, Cohort #2 includes Abbotsford Pilots, Chilliwack Jets and Mission City Outlaws, and Cohort #3 will be Delta Ice Hawks, Langley Trappers and North Vancouver Wolf Pack.
Schedules for each cohort will be posted on www.pjhl.net as they become available.
League commissioner Trevor Alto said the PJHL takes great pride in its return-to-play plan. “It has been a collaborated effort involving our governing bodies, municipalities, facilities, other user groups, and our players and staff,” Alto said in the website post. “Our teams have put in a lot of work getting us to this point, and we are very excited that we are able to get the season underway.”