BY GREG SAKAKI
The Nanaimo Clippers want to remain one of the best as the B.C. Hockey League begins a new era.
The BCHL, now an independent league, is about to drop the puck on the 2023-24 season, and the Nanaimo Clippers get to start things off this Friday, Sept. 22, on home ice at Frank Crane Arena.
Nanaimo finished atop the Coastal Conference during the regular season last year, but were only able to win one round of playoff hockey. An off-season later, they’re a new-look club with only a small handful of return veterans, and a new interim head coach, Curtis Toneff.
The team won five of its six pre-season games, but said there’s always uncertainty moving from exhibition play to games that count.
“It’s tough to know what you have at this time of year,” Toneff said. “A bounce or two the other way and it’s a totally different score.”
He knows this year’s Clippers are a collection of good hockey players, so one positive takeaway from the pre-season was the way those players began the process of becoming a team.
“I liked the way our guys got better as a team every night,” Toneff said. “Not necessarily our play, but we got better as a team – the bench got louder, the room got louder.”
Nanaimo’s offence this year is expected to be led by Clippers forward Willyam Gendron, who makes good decisions on the ice and who coaches feel can be dominant in his third year in the league. Another returning vet up front is Joel Plante. The forward lines will be filled with speed, youth, and players who can make scoring chances develop quickly. One newcomer to watch is big 20-year-old Swedish centre Gabriel Westling, who plays hard and smart and makes things happen for whoever is out on the ice with him.
On defence, Brett Merner, a two-way guy who is hard to play against, is the veteran leader, but it’s two dynamic newcomers who are especially intriguing. Isa Parekh, who’s come out west for his 20-year-old season, is a threat whenever he’s in the offensive zone, and Clippers expect offence to flow from his area of the ice both on the power play and at even strength. Andrew Brown is a couple of years younger, but brings a lot of those same attributes to the blueline.
In goal, the Clippers intend to carry three netminders, with Tom Kieswetter and Tyler Hodges the likely starting tandem, and Massimo Urbani pushing for a role.
Toneff said the off-season involved a lot of learning for coaches and general managers to familiarize themselves with the new roster rules. The Coastal Conference is filled with experienced coaches with a lot of hockey connections, and teams that make the most of the depth they are allowed will have an advantage.
“No one can be taken lightly on any given night and I think it’ll trickle onto the play on the ice and eventually into the fan support [as they realize] what a hockey league this has become,” Toneff said.
The Clippers will be hyped for the home opener, wanting to start the season on a high note, give the fans a good show, and carry on and continue building a team culture.
“The future’s still uncertain, but there’s some very talented hockey players on our ice that are going to bring some people into the building, because everyone likes to watch fast and exciting hockey,” the coach said.
GAME ON … The Clippers host the Cowichan Valley Capitals on Friday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. at Frank Crane Arena. For tickets, visit www.nanaimoclippers.com. The teams play a rematch in Duncan the next night.