By Dickson Liong - October 29, 2014
The WHL's Vancouver Giants have been on a roller coaster of emotions. Vancouver was all smiles after a dominating 9-1 victory over the Prince George Cougars on Oct. 23. That victory improved its record to 6-1-0-0 when in the friendly confines of the Pacific Coliseum. But despite the victories coming on home ice, the Giants were winless on the road. See, the thing was, the Giants were scheduled to head out on a three-game road trip, visiting the Kamloops Blazers before going to Victoria for back-to-back games against the Royals.
After such a convincing victory over the Cougars, it looked as if it was what the Giants needed to turn things around on the road. That wasn't so. The Giants' woes on the road continued, as they lost to the Blazers 7-2 and fell to the Royals 2-1 and 3-2.
“I think it's just a little bit of finishing it off,” Vancouver forward Carter Popoff said. “At home, we have a lot of confidence when things are going well and we're scoring goals. On the road, we've struggled a little bit to score goals. Once we can't score goals, we kind of shy away from our systems a little bit and we get one-on-one plays. We've just got to stay patient on the road, take the crowds out of it, play greasy games, and get one-goal wins.”
Good news, they didn’t have to...yet. Vancouver was scheduled to play host to the Brandon Wheat Kings on Wednesday. Despite the success at home, though, it wasn't going to be easy to get two points. After all, the Wheat Kings are considered one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The Giants would have to face the Wheat Kings shorthanded, with forward Tyler Benson and defenceman Ryely McKinstry away at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge in the Sarnia, Ont., area. Benson is projected as one of the top prospects eligible for the 2016 NHL draft. In 12 games with the Giants, he has 11 points, including eight assists.
“There shouldn't really be a difference,” Popoff said. “I mean, we've got a lot of able bodies in our dressing room and a lot of guys that are hungry for ice time. Losing a guy like Benny, it hurts us offensively. But there's other guys and guys that need to step up in an absence like that.”
As well, Vancouver captain Dalton Sward suffered a lower-body injury during the road trip and wasn’t fit to dress against the Wheat Kings. Let's not forget, too, that Ty Ronning and Jakob Stukel, two of the Giants' sophomore forwards, were already out with shoulder and thumb injuries, respectively. Vancouver lost 5-2 to the Wheat Kings and extended their losing streak to four games.
“It's always about us,” Giants' head coach Troy Ward said. “We always just focus on ourselves. I mean, we knew what Brandon was capable of doing, we knew how they would probably play tonight. I thought we were well prepared that way.”
Vancouver wasn't going to use the missing players as an excuse. After all, Brandon was missing players, too.
“We weren't as good as we need to be, plain and simple,” Ward said. “Regardless, we have 20 people that wore the jersey, and they had 20 people and their 20 were better than ours. It doesn't matter, experience or anything else. I mean, it's a team game and as a team, we could have been better.
“I expected their style, we got exactly what was advertised in our pre-scout. Unfortunately, we couldn't counter-punch a lot of things. I thought they executed some things very well on some chances. We knew they were a highly-skilled team. Obviously, they lead the league in goals. They have a really good feel for the game. What they make difficult for you, especially with the group we had tonight, is that you have to defend four players all the time. They use the fourth player constantly, and that was a factor in the game tonight, which was a little bit overwhelming for us at times. Then at times, we did some really good things.”
Being hungry wasn't one of them, according to Ward.
“I think the thing what our team has got to learn is that we have to show up with the same figure we have when it's 4-1,” Ward confessed. “That's the hard part for our team yet. That's the growth of our team. I would say that even when we have all our healthy bodies here, I still think the team in maturation process needs to be hungrier in general. We're not hungry enough prior to a game or in what I just told (the team) tonight, it was practice. We're just not there yet as a group and against certain teams like this, we're going to get exposed.
“I think our older guys can set the tone because they've been here and they’ve been through the (rigours). They understand what it takes. But in general, it's everybody. In today's game, if you're not making headway by 18-years-old in the (WHL), it's tough to make it (to the pros). You can't just look to the older guys. When you're 16 (and) 17, you've got to be pushing. You can't wait to play (at) 18, in my opinion.”
The Giants won't be just pushing during games, but also in practice.
“Our demeanour kind of has to change a bit,” Popoff said. “There are a lot of guys in this room who have gone through losing seasons in this organization, and it's not acceptable. We've got to bear down and…we're all friends on this team, but sometimes it's good to go out in practice and battle each other hard and push each other to get better.”
Vancouver visits the Seattle Thunderbirds on Saturday, and is desperate for a victory.
By Dickson Liong - October 20, 2014
It isn’t often that Don Hay has had to use the visiting team entrance at the Pacific Coliseum.
Hay led the Kamloops Blazers to consecutive Memorial Cup championships in 1993-94 and 1994-95 as their head coach. He was on a path to becoming a legend in the city. His success with Kamloops was followed by stints with the Calgary Flames, Phoenix Coyotes, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Tri-City Americans and Utah Grizzlies.
Then, prior to the 2004-05 season, Hay became the head coach of the Vancouver Giants.
Despite having less of the spotlight on him in Vancouver, he did much the same as he had done in Kamloops, and helped the team to their first Memorial Cup championship in 2006-07. After seven more seasons, his time with the Giants would come to an end.
Vancouver finished No. 7 in the Western Conference and went against the No. 2 Portland Winterhawks in the quarterfinal round last season. Many observers didn't give the Giants much of a chance to win a best-or-seven series, and Vancouver ended up getting swept.
Hay had signed a five-year contract extension on Aug. 27, 2010, and had one more year left. It wasn't going to be with the Giants, though. Vancouver released him from his contract on May 1 to allow him to join the Blazers, who were looking for a head coach.
"Tom Gaglardi, the Blazers' owner, contacted me last week and asked for permission to speak with Don," Ron Toigo, the Giants' majority owner, said in the team's press release at the time. "I'm sure Don is looking forward to moving home and spending more time with his family and enjoying the time with his grandkids.
“He came here when we were a young franchise and helped develop an identity for the Giants, and showed us how to win. He leaves with a Memorial Cup, a WHL championship, and five B.C Division titles. I can't say how much we appreciate what Don has done and what he has meant to the franchise."
That left Vancouver looking for a head coach, something it hadn't done for 10 seasons. The Giants were looking for someone with a different approach. They were open about the fact that they wanted someone that coached an offensive, puck-possession style of game.
Meanwhile, after the Abbsoford Heat, the AHL affiliate for the Calgary Flames, lost $12.7 million, the city had had enough. It paid $5.5 million to terminate its contract with the team on April 15.
Troy Ward, the head coach of the Heat, wasn't going to join the team at their new location, as the Flames chose not to renew his contract. Ward submitted his resume for the Giants' head-coaching job, and on July 17, they hired him. A good word put in by former Vancouver forward Lance Bouma didn't hurt either. He played for Ward with the Heat.
“When we asked him style-wise and so forth, it sounds like he has some similarities to what Mike Johnston (the former head coach of the Winterhawks) played in Portland,” Scott Bonner, the Giants' general manager, said at Ward's introductory press conference. “I think that with the dynamics that we have coming with forwards Tyler Benson and Ty Ronning, we're going to have to change our style a bit. We're going to have to play more offensive and less checking. Hopefully, he can pass the message to these kids.”
Ward has come as advertised. In eight games, the Giants were 4-4-0-0. More notably, though, they have combined for 30 goals. Add another three to the total, as they shut out the the visiting Blazers 3-0 on Oct. 17, spoiling Hay's return to the Pacific Coliseum.
“It's pretty good, we needed a win anyways whether it was against Don or not,” Giants' forward Carter Popoff said. “(A win against Don) is really indifferent for us, we lost two in a row in Prince George that were tough games so we wanted to get back on home ice and get a win.”
It was apparent the styles between Ward and Hay weren't the same.
“I think it's a lot to do with puck procession and pace,” Popoff said. “With Troy, he really wants us coming through the neutral zone and holding on to the puck, making plays. I mean, he still wants us to play hard, but I think Don preached more of a crash-and-bang style of game as you could see out there. They were working hard, they chipped it by our defencemen every chance they could. I think that's the big difference.”
As well, for some of the Giants, it has been a breath of fresh air to have a new head coach.
“I think for a lot of guys, it was a good change,” Popoff confessed. “I mean, a coach is a coach. You're going to have to play whatever style he wants you to play, so it's not a big deal to a lot of the guys.”
Nevertheless, Hay will forever be one of the WHL's most respected coaches, especially in Vancouver.