Photo Credit: Tim Matwey
What a ride!
The first full BCHL season in the history of the Cranbrook Bucks has come to an end, and the campaign brought a year full of firsts, wins, cheers and fun.
The Bucks came into their first regular season with little BCHL experience under their collective belts, save for a 20-game pod season in spring 2021. Cranbrook spent the pod season in Penticton with the Trail Smoke Eaters and the Vees, earning just 3 wins through an injury-riddled 20-game excursion.
Though the victories weren’t plentiful through the pod season, the team gained valuable BCHL experience. Returning players like Cam Kungle, Cole Assailly, AJ Vasko, Zeth Kindrachuk and company were once again set to play key roles for the club. Meanwhile, head coach Ryan Donald’s leadership group for the 2021-22 season included defenceman Rhys Bentham as team captain. The group was rounded out with assistant captains Cam Kungle, Johnny Johnson and Brendan Rogers. Bentham, or “Benny”, took his role seriously and he proved to be a strong leader throughout the season.
“We had a really great locker room this year, the guys are all great leaders around the room and I got a lot of support and a lot of help from my teammates,” says Bentham, who plans to return to the Bucks next season before moving on to Yale University for the 2023-24 season.
Cranbrook’s preseason brought plenty of promise, the club went undefeated (4-0) through exhibition play. Many would say the Bucks had their definitive “welcome to Cranbrook” moment in the days leading up to the regular season, in a special exhibition game versus the Team Canada National Women’s Team – who were touring BC ahead of their gold medal performance at the Beijing Winter Games. The Bucks picked up an 8-3 win in their October 6th showdown with Team Canada in front of the franchise’s first sellout crowd at Western Financial Place. It was a sign of things to come.
After the Bucks were introduced as the BCHL’s 18th franchise in fall 2019, unforeseen challenges caused by a global pandemic delayed the team’s regular season debut for a full year. Owner and president Nathan Lieuwen says the team and the BCHL did very well in ensuring its players were able to be showcased throughout a turbulent pandemic, while pivoting to keep up with evolving public health guidelines.
“I think our league and our franchise did a very good job of navigating those turbulent waters, and making sure that the players got to play,” Lieuwen says. “Obviously this year, our fans got to experience what we wanted them to experience here.”
Cranbrook hockey fans would finally get their first look at their new team in their Western Financial Place regular season debut in a showdown with Kootenay rivals, the Trail Smoke Eaters, on October 8, 2021. Safe to say, it was worth the wait!
The Bucks brought 2,350 fans out of their seats just over fifteen-minutes into the first period, when forward Tyson Dyck picked up the first regular season goal in the club’s history. Luke Pfoh and Noah Quinn picked up assists on the historic goal – a song that would be sung in broadcast booths throughout the BCHL for the rest of the season. Cranbrook hung on for a 5-3 win over Trail on opening night, and they were just getting started.
Cranbrook played consistently through the team’s first month, including their first BCHL showcase appearance in Chilliwack.
By the end of October, it had become apparent that Cranbrook had a new hockey star on its hands, with Tyson Dyck emerging as one of the BCHL’s best players. Dyck would go on to finish the season with 75 points (34-41-75) to place 4th overall in league scoring, while also landing on the radar of NHL Central Scouting and securing a nomination for the BCHL’s Rookie of the Year award.
Always humble, Dyck attributes his success largely to linemates Noah Quinn and Luke Pfoh. “A lot of the year I played with two younger guys in the league,” Dyck says. “We compliment each other’s game a lot.”
Midway through November, goaltender Nathan Airey earned his first BCHL shutout in an 8-0 win over the Merritt Centennials. Airey would go on to post terrific numbers through the season, giving the Bucks a chance to win in each of his starts. The Cranbrook goalie posted a 20-12-5 record through 39 games, posting 4 shutouts and the BCHL’s 8th best save percentage at .911%.
“I thought I brought a lot of calmness this year to the team,” Airey says. “In situations when we were a bit scrambly, I thought like I could calm the team down with an easy save and make it look easy.”
Airey would start in all six of Cranbrook’s playoff games, saving one of his best performances for last when he stopped 47 of 50 Prince George Spruce Kings shots in game six of their first round series.
The Bucks hit a bit of a rough patch through the end of November and into early December, but they seemed to have regained their stride just in time for the BCHL’s holiday break. By this point, the season had been impacted with cancellations to several games due to catastrophic flooding events in the Fraser Valley and southern Interior areas. This forced the BCHL to alter its schedule to feature only in-conference play – meaning the Bucks would finish the rest of their season facing only rivals within the Interior Conference.
Ryan Donald added a few new players around the holiday break. Original recruit Noah Leibl was traded to Victoria for large defenceman Declan Ride, who embraced his time with the team and quickly became a fan-favourite while providing a skill and size injection to Cranbrook’s blueline. At the trade deadline, the Bucks also added workhorse forwards Carter Schmidt and Jaden Fodchuk.
Ongoing challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic forced the BCHL to postpone its 60th Anniversary All Star Weekend. The event was meant to be packed with activities, including a top prospects game which was to feature Tyson Dyck, Luke Pfoh and Noah Quinn. Dyck was also selected to take part in the all star game.
With the playoffs approaching as February came to an end, the Bucks found themselves in a race for home-ice advantage in the Interior Conference. Cranbrook played some of their best hockey through March, building momentum heading into post season play. Their impressive showing through the homestretch included an upset victory over the BCHL-leading Penticton Vees – shocking the favourites with a 5-2 win on home ice on March 19.
Cranbrook fell just shy of its drive to secure home ice advantage in the playoffs, but their 29-22-2-3 record through the 2021-22 regular represented a dramatic improvement from their showing in the 2021 BCHL pod season. The Bucks finished fifth in the Interior Conference, poised for a best-of-seven first round showdown with the Prince George Spruce Kings.
For 2005-born Bucks forward Luke Pfoh, his first season in the BCHL as one of the league’s youngest players was a whirlwind. He looks forward to coming back more seasoned and stronger next season. “I came here just to have a hardworking season, fortunately I got paired with two awesome players for most of the season and they really helped out my game.”
The playoffs were a roller coaster ride for the Bucks and their fans while the series lasted. Prince George appeared to have the series well in hand after winning games one and two at home, but the Bucks turned the tables on the Spruce Kings with wins at home in games three and four. After a heartbreaking loss for Cranbrook in game five, the stage was set for a dramatic game six – which would prove to be the end to a season to remember for the Bucks and their herd. More than 3,000 fans were treated to a classic BCHL playoff battle, but a quick overtime goal from the road team halted Cranbrook’s ride a little earlier than they would have liked.
The end of the season spells the end of the line for the 20-year-olds on Cranbrook’s roster, who have reached the end of their junior hockey careers. The club is thanking Quaid Anderson, Johnny Johnson, Brendan Rogers, Evan Gartner and Liam Hansson for their many contributions to the team and the community during their time with the Bucks.
Additionally, the Bucks are congratulating its players who have announced their commitments to continuing their hockey careers at the collegiate level. As mentioned earlier, team captain Rhys Bentham has committed to Yale University. Also, Kellan Hjartarson will play at the NCAA Div. 1 level with Bentley University, Noah Quinn has committed to Bemidji State University, Declan Ride is committed to Ohio’s Miami University and Liam Hansson will suit up with Air Force Academy next season.
Thank you for your support through an amazing season, Cranbrook! See you at training camp in four months!