On Friday, prior to the Abbotsford Pilots’ regular season opener against the Delta Ice Hawks, they’ll hoist a pair of banners to the rafters of MSA Arena.
Those are the spoils of victory from 2011-12, otherwise known as the greatest season in Pilots history.
The team won the Cyclone Taylor Cup, emblematic of provincial junior B hockey supremacy, and went on to win the franchise’s first-ever Western Canadian title in dominant fashion.
When it comes to defending a title, though, conventional wisdom holds that it’s far more difficult to do than winning it in the first place. There can be a tendency to rest on one’s laurels, and having climbed the mountain once, arriving back at sea level and staring up at the summit can be daunting.
But spend a little time around the Pilots, and it’s hard to detect even a whiff of championship hangover.
“Actually, I’m more excited than anything,” forward Adam Rossi asserted. “It’s kind of like a new project. I’m one of the older guys now, and it’s a chance to take the reins and see what I can do with it.”
Defenceman Brett Kolins admitted that training camp is a grind, but after last season’s sweat investment yielded a championship, there’s no shortage of motivation.
“We tasted it all last year, and it was probably the best feeling ever,” said Kolins, the Pilots’ captain. “So obviously you want to do it again. Especially since it’s my 20-year-old year – you want to go out with a bang. You just set big goals and get there one step at a time.”
Pilots general manager Jack Goeson and head coach Jim Cowden took a couple weeks off after the Western Canadians, but they were soon back at it, seeking to rebuild the roster.
They had plenty of holes to fill up front, as four of the top five scorers from last year have moved on. Brad Parker is playing junior A with the Powell River Kings, while Riley Lamb, Justin Dorey and Kevin Lourens have exhausted their junior eligibility.
But Abbotsford does bring back Rossi, their top scorer during the regular season with 18 goals and 35 assists in 44 games, and former Pilot Mike Tebbutt returns to the fold after three seasons playing junior A. The 6’4″ power forward was the Langley Rivermen’s third-leading scorer last season, with 24 goals and 23 assists in 53 games.
“I kind of wish I would have come back a little bit earlier,” Tebbutt joked, alluding to the fact he missed out on a championship season. “But I got to watch a little bit of what they were doing, and it got me excited to come back here.
“I’m going to school at UFV this year, and I don’t really have time to play junior A anymore. I just wanted to come home and finish my last year of junior.”
A number of forwards who were role players last season – Kyle Star, Brady Lawlor, Luke Venema, Chris Vinette, Colton Cowden, Brandon Daase and Dakota Schipper – are back, and they’ll be expected to contribute more offensively.
On the blueline, veterans Travis Grewal, Matt Genovese and Garett Lynum all graduated from the junior ranks, leaving Kolins to lead a rather youthful group. The Pilots picked up Kyle Parmar in a trade with the Victoria Cougars to boost their experience level on defence, while local product Austin Edwards headlines a crop of promising rookies.
“They’re young and they’ll make mistakes early on, but we’ll work with them, and by Christmas they’ll be a better group,” Cowden said.
The Pilots got a huge piece of good news last week, as goalie Aaron Oakley returned to the team after trying out for the junior A Weyburn (Sask.) Red Wings.
“When he texted me, I said, ‘That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,'” Cowden said of Oakley, who went 13-9-0 last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .905 save percentage. “We’ll get a young backup and tutor him, but Oakley will be the guy.”
Add it all up, and Cowden believes the Pilots have the ingredients to be among the Pacific International Junior Hockey League’s top teams once again.
“We’ve got a very good group,” he said. “What happened last year, happened last year. It’s done, and we’re all on the same page. It’s a fresh season.”
• The Pilots host the Ice Hawks at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at MSA Arena.