The most immediate difference last weekend from the Quality Foods Oceanside Generals main hockey camp from a year ago was simply the number of red, visored helmets topping the skaters taking part in the three days of scrimmages and evaluations.
The more meaningful difference for a team that finished last in the nine-team Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League last season is what’s happening inside those helmets, which denote the many returning veterans from what was most likely the VIJHL’s youngest team.
“There’s a different mindset among the veterans,” said Brodie Smith, a forward who spent part of last year with the Generals between Junior A stints in Port Alberni and Duncan. “There’s a lot more dedication, as a whole. It’s a good group, and they want to win.”
Gerry Bickerton, who served as an assistant coach last year, steps into the head job to pick up the work started a year ago. The 2015-16 Generals, he said, were crafted with an eye to the future — and that day could arrive as early as this season.
Last season got off to a ragged start, and the organization was forced into a series of in-season roster moves. But things stabilized down the stretch, and 17-year-old goalie Matt Henwood provided a bright spot after his acquisition by posting an 8-7 record in what was otherwise a difficult, 13-31-1-3 season.
“It was a very young squad last season,” Bickerton admits. “But that was kind of the intention, to rebuild the program from the ground up, with the goal of getting them some experience and moving forward with year two on this plan.”
The first test of the plan comes this weekend, when the Generals travel to Campbell River Friday to face the perennial league power Storm in their opening exhibition game. Back-to-back home exhibition games will follow, with Kerry Park visiting, Oceanside Place Arena for a 7:30 p.m. game Saturday and Campbell River calling Sunday for a 2:30 p.m. matinee.
Forward Brandon Roberge, left, tries to stay with the puck after colliding with defenseman Brandon Hannibal during a scrimmage in the Oceanside Generals main camp Saturday at Oceanside Place Arena. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/NEWS staff
With several players still attending Junior A camps, the roster will remain unsettled in the early stages of the season, Bickerton said. But by the end of this weekend’s exhibition series, the club should have a general idea how it will stack up.
“Friday, I think we’ll have a veteran line or two up front, and a line or two on defence, and a chunk of prospects getting a lot of ice time,” said Bickerton. “Saturday will be similar, with a little more of a veteran look. Sunday will probably be more for the veterans, with the odd prospect we’re still looking at strongly.”
Last weekend’s main camp at Oceanside Place drew more than 40 hopefuls, with what the coaching staff described as a strong collection of young prospects to challenge the veterans for spots on the roster.
The Generals boast a strong core of returning players on the forward line, including Smith, Cam Nickerson, Sebastian Powsey and Landon Dziadyk.
Last weekend was marked by a series of high-intensity scrimmages, capped with the “Top 30” game Sunday afternoon as the coaching staff thinned the prospective roster.
“We like what we’re seeing so far,” Bickerton said Saturday. “The intensity in camp is higher than what we saw this time last year. We’re excited here right now; we have a chance to be a really strong team.”