Nine weeks without playing a meaningful hockey game. No big deal for Vernon’s Powell Connor and the Chilliwack Chiefs as they prepare for the Royal Bank Cup semifinal Saturday night.
The host Chiefs meet the Ottawa Jr. Senators at Prospera Centre, while the B.C. Hockey League champion Wenatchee Wild battle the Wellington Dukes of Ontario in the matinee semi. The RBC final goes Sunday at 4 p.m. and will be broadcast live on TSN.
“Last time we played them (4-3 overtime victory in preliminary action), we had a slow start so we’re gonna try and jump on them early and not let them into the game at all,” said Connor, moments after a Friday afternoon practice.
The Chiefs won just one of its first eight games as it struggled to a .500 regular season before being bounced in seven games by Prince George Spruce Kings in the first round of the playoffs. Chilliwack is making its first appearance at the RBC Cup since 2002. Forward Finn Evans, an NHL prospect who spent the first month of the season with the Vernon Vipers, is with Ottawa.
“Just two more wins and we’re Royal Bank champions,” said Connor, who turned 18 on May 4. “It’s a pretty cool feeling. The mood around the team is really upbeat. Our group is very excited and confident.”
Connor, a 6-foot-2, stay-at-home defenceman who has secured an NCAA scholarship with the Michigan State Spartans for the 2019-20 season, says having 62 days off since their last game has given the Chiefs a big boost. He said head coach Brian Maloney, who replaced Jason Tatarnic in a stunning move a week before the RBC, has the team’s ultimate respect.
“Everyone’s bought into the system he wants,” said the heavy-hitting Connor. “It’s simple: get pucks deep and use our speed and use the fact that we haven’t played for nine weeks to our advantage. We’re fresh, where the other teams had to grind it out to get here.”
Connor said the coaching change didn’t overwhelm the players.
“No one saw that coming. Everyone’s a little surprised but the coach is there to guide you. It’s up to us to execute on the ice.”
Cam Keith, a former coach with the BCHL Trail Smoke Eaters, was brought in to assist Maloney.
“He runs the dee and he’s been positive with everyone. He’s just letting us play our game.”
Connor’s dee partner is Matt Slack of New Hampshire. He has committed to the Holy Cross Crusaders of Worcester, Mass. for 2019.
Connor spent a few weeks at home in Vernon before the Chiefs began gruelling workouts leading up to the National Junior A tournament.
“We had a pretty intense schedule. We did five days on and one off, on and off the ice. We slowly tempered it to two days on and one off. Some guys actually lost weight. I stayed the same (180). We were pretty fit going into the tournament.”
The Chiefs, who have a dozen NCAA commits, did some team bonding with luncheons and spent a day at an area Bible camp, where they did some rock climbing.
Meanwhile, a day after the round-robin portion of the tournament ended, the RBC Cup announced their individual award winners this afternoon, with BCHL players taking home four of the six trophies.
Most Valuable Player (Roland Mercier Trophy): Will Calverley, Chilliwack. Calverley leads the tournament with five goals and is tied for third in points. The Chiefs captain had the game of his life in a 4-3 win over the Junior Senators, scoring all four goals, including the overtime winner.
Top Forward: Jasper Weatherby, Wenatchee. The BCHL’s regular-season MVP has carried his success into the playoffs, the Doyle Cup and now the RBC Cup. Weatherby is hoping to cap off this magical season with a national championship on Sunday.
Top Goaltender: Daniel Chenard, Chilliwack. The 18-year-old showed no signs of rust from a nearly two-month layoff between games as he has been a rock for the Chiefs since the start of this tournament. Chenard leads the tournament with a .942 save percentage and a 1.62 goals-against average (among goalies with at least three games played). The highlight of his tournament so far was a 26-save shutout over the Dukes.
Top Scorer: Weatherby. The Lummi Island, Wash. native racked up eight points in his team’s four round-robin games, including a tournament-best five assists. Weatherby’s biggest output came in a two-goal, one-assist effort in a 4-3 Wenatchee win over the Steinbach Pistons.
Top Defenceman: Darby Gula, Steinbach.
Most Sportsmanlike Player (Tubby Schmalz Trophy): Zach Salloum, Ottawa.