When it entered the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League in 1997, the Campbell River Storm quickly became the league’s dominant team.
From 1997/98 to 2003/04, the club won an unprecedented seven straight VIJHL championships, one provincial title, and earned silver and bronze medals in the Keystone Cup, Canada’s national Junior B championships.
The program hasn’t had a title since. But under the current ownership, the team has undergone a revival and is now a contender for the league title once again.
“One of the things I tried to do when I first came here was to pay homage to how good this program was,” said Lee Stone, the second-year head coach who has overseen the turnaround from a 12-win season just two years ago to a 39-4-1-4 mark in the just-completed season.
“It’s easy for these players to come back every day, knowing that for seven years in a row guys did the same thing and won. We want to be the team to bring it back.”
The Storm embark on that goal in earnest tonight, when they kick off the 2015 VIJHL playoffs with a 7:30 p.m. game against Peninsula/Oceanside at Rod Brind’Amour Arena. It will be the opening game of a best-of-7 series.
The team’s decline following its 2004 league championship was gradual. The Storm reached the league finals each of the next two years and, as hosts of the Keystone Cup in 2006, the Storm reached the national championship final before falling in overtime to Red Deer. As recently as 2007/08 the team posted a 28-15-0-3 record.
But the Storm slumped to a 17-win season the next year, ushering in a five-year stretch of futility that bottomed out with a 9-34-0-1 debacle in 2010/11. Following that season, Kevin and Linda Spooner purchased the team and committed to turning the program around.
Two more losing seasons followed — including the 12-win campaign of 2012/13 — before Stone was brought in as coach and the Storm responded with 30 wins in his first year.
“The biggest difference that’s happened with the Storm was just changing the team dynamic,” said Linda Spooner. “I always thought of it as a four- to five-year plan when we bought the team, so we’re definitely on track. The first two years were pretty difficult, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
At the forefront of the revival are captain Jordan Rauser and assistant captain Josiah Friesen, the last two players remaining from the 12-win season.
“I think we have more skill than we did in those days,” said Rauser. “We all worked hard, but I don’t think we had the skill to back up our hard work. I think that’s a testament to our coach, bringing in those good players.”
Stone came to the Storm from Mission, where he was coaching a midget program after having played at Arizona State University. Having played and watched hockey at multiple levels throughout B.C. for years, he arrived with a clear vision that matched the Spooners’ outlook.
“I thought when I first showed up here we had a group of kids that enjoyed ‘living the dream,’ as opposed to being willing to show up every day and put the work in,” Stone said. “We wanted to bring in character kids that wanted to take advantage of the things we have here.”
The amenities the Storm program offer included the team’s own dressing room/clubhouse, ice time every day and its own gym. In addition, Linda Spooner added, the support system from billet families to relationships with the local secondary schools and School District 72 is second to none.
“It’s just hard work, from management down to the volunteers who offer as much help as they can,” said Spooner. “It’s basically run on volunteer help, and they’re dedicated to making sure the boys have a great experience while they’re here.”
Then, of course, there are the fans. In last Friday’s regular-season home finale against Victoria — essentially a playoff-level contest to determine the league’s top spot — the Storm’s supporters sold out Rod Brind’Amour Arena. One week earlier, an appearance by the Green Men and youngsters visiting town for an atom development tournament helped swell attendance to 1,075 for a game against Comox.
“By far the best junior fan experience in B.C.,” said Stone. “I don’t think it’s close.
“The kids went pretty crazy for the Green Men, but I still think the loudest cheer of the night was when we won the game and we gave the fans a salute at the end.”
With the fans, players, management and volunteers all on the same page, the Storm look forward to writing a happy ending to the 2014-15 season.
“Our goal’s definitely a championship,” said Rauser. “We’re in the gym, we’re practicing and working on our game so we can compete in every series, win every series and, hopefully, bring a title back to Campbell River.”