Peter Schaefer has bigger challenges than those awaiting most rookie head coaches in the B.C. Hockey League.
Not only is Schaefer running a junior A team for the first time, he's also charged with orchestrating an encore to the best Surrey Eagles season in 15 years.
Last season Schaefer was on the Surrey bench as an assistant helping to guide the Eagles to a BCHL regular season title. When the playoffs began, Surrey rolled to a Fred Page Cup title followed by a Western Canada Cup crown before the playoff run ended in overtime of the semifinals at the Royal Bank Cup national championship tournament.
In the off-season, head coach Matt Erhart moved on to an assistant coaching gig with the Vancouver Giants, leaving former NHLer Schaefer to reload the Eagles' nest.
"The nature of junior hockey is when you have success one year, you lose a lot of players," Schaefer said. "Your older guys graduate and some of the younger guys move on with scholarships or pursue other opportunities. You get some guys back and that's what we have to build on for this year. The goal of our organization is to move guys on to the next level and I think we did that successfully last year."
The Eagles' nest contains just six players who suited up for the Birds last season, led by captain Brett Mulcahy and fellow forwards Nicolas Pierog, Colton Mackie and Joel Gaudet. Defenders Ryan Fraser-Lee and Matthew Dawson round out the returnees.
In the off season, Schaefer managed to feather the nest with a talented group of veteran forwards, including talented twin snipers Nathan and Jonah Renouf. Last season in Ontario junior A, the twins combined for 160 points and secured scholarships to Quinnipiac University.
Another veteran forward landing in Surrey is Joe Drapluk, who faced off against the Eagles at the Royal Bank Cup as a member of the Minnesota Wilderness.
Braedan Russell (Vernon), Mitchell Fyffe (Coquitlam), Michael Roberts (Vernon) and goaltender Victor Adamo (Ontario league) also bring veteran experience to Surrey.
The biggest question marks on the Surrey roster lie on the blue line where Fraser-Lee and Dawson will be heading up a group of talented youngster who are greener than freshly picked bananas.
"We have a younger defensive corps and they're definitely going to be tested," Schaefer said. "Dawson and Fraser-Lee have experience back there and then after that, we have a bunch of guys playing their first season for us. They're all good players and this is going to be a step up for them, but we're confident they're ready to do that. They were all highly sought after by other teams and they'll be able to make the adjustment."
When the Eagles stage their home opener Friday night (7 p.m.) against the Langley Rivermen, the club will show off two big trophies and raise five new championship banners to the rafters of South Surrey Arena. That hardware and collection of fabric has not gone unnoticed by league rivals. Games against Surrey will be circled on the calendars of other teams, assuring the Eagles will have to play their best every night.
"Rosters change drastically from one year to the next, but obviously winning the league last year means we're going to be challenged more this year," Schaefer said. "Teams are going to be gunning for us, but that makes it more fun too. Guys will be chirping at us on the ice and that make for a good atmosphere for our players. If they're not ready to play then they're going to get beat so the guys have to be ready for it every night."
It may not be pretty some nights, but keep this in mind: Last fall the Eagles did not exactly tear up the league in the first couple of months of the season. Surrey posted a positively mediocre record of five wins and five losses through 10 games before timely trades and team cohesion took hold.
Like last year, the current Eagles roster started this campaign with a win and a loss at the showcase tournament in Chilliwack last weekend.
Time will tell if Schaefer has the Birds back on a winning flight path.
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