With season over, Victoria Grizzlies look to the future

VICTORIA, B.C.: FEBRUARY 25, 2022-Victoria Grizzlies Matthew Wood breaks up ice in front of Cowichan Valley Capitals Luke Haymes in BCHL action at The Q Centre in Victoria, B.C. February 25, 2022. (DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST). For Sports story by Cleve Dheensaw.

Cleve Dheensaw

How tough is the Coastal Conference of the B.C. Hockey League?

Even with a projected top-10 pick for the 2023 NHL draft, the Victoria Grizzlies were unable to advance to the second round of the playoffs. BCHL leading-scorer and Canada U-17 player Matthew Wood, a finalist for both the league MVP and top rookie awards, is on the sidelines as the conference semifinals are set to begin.

There were no bracket busters as the top seeds all advanced with the No. 1 Alberni Valley Bulldogs meeting the fourth-seed Langley Rivermen and the second-seed Chilliwack Chiefs playing the third-seed Nanaimo Clippers in the best-of-seven Coastal semifinals.

“There are no easy games in this conference but that only helps you get better,” said ­Victoria GM and head coach Craig Didmon, whose fifth-seed Grizzlies went down in five games to the Rivermen in the opening round.

“We are a good hockey club that could not get its ducks all in a row because of major injuries. We deserved a better fate. The effort was there but our group ran into bad luck.”

The Grizzlies’ blue line was decimated for the playoffs as Clark Hiebert, the league’s leading scorer among defencemen, missed all five post-season games due to a upper body injury suffered late in the regular season, and fellow blue-liners Eli Barnett and Michael Adamek missed the final three games of the Langley series with injuries.

The Grizzlies are left with looking ahead to a team that loses only seven players, including captain Ellis Rickwood to Clarkson University of NCAA Div. 1, but has 15 players returning, including the touted Wood, and forwards Devon deVries and Jack Gorton, who had strong playoffs with five and four points, respectively. Rookie 17-year-old defenceman Hoyt Stanley, who missed the first half of the regular season with an injury, also showed well in the playoffs, picking up four points, and is expected to take another step next season in his NHL draft year.

“It’s an exciting group returning,” said Didmon.

“And we also have a lot ­high-end recruits interested in coming here.”

The Grizzlies have a ­reputation for churning out blue-chip talent. Nanaimo-native Wood, who had five points in the five playoff games, is set to become the club’s second first-round NHL draft pick in four years, following current ­Colorado Avalanche forward Alex Newhook in 2019.

A major part of the Grizzlies’ off-season recruiting will consist of looking for a high-calibre centre to pair next season with the six-foot-three winger Wood. It helps that the BCHL as a whole is an easy sell. There were 21 BCHL alumni in the NCAA ­Frozen Four last week at TD Garden in Boston, nine with finalist Minnesota State, six with the Michigan Wolverines, five with champion Denver and one with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

“We have a great league with future NHLers,” said Didmon.

“Recruits know they can put themselves on that platform and have that opportunity.”

Meanwhile, eight BCHL teams are still concerned with this season. The Coastal Conference semifinals begin Friday and Saturday with the Rivermen visiting Port Alberni to play the Bulldogs and the Clippers in Chilliwack to meet the Chiefs.

The Interior Conference semifinalists are the BCHL regular-season champion Penticton Vees and Prince George Spruce Kings playing in one series and the West Kelowna Warriors meeting the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the other series.

The eventual Coastal and Interior champion will meet in the Fred Page Cup BCHL final series.