NANAIMO — While the final destination has been very similar in back-to-back years for the Nanaimo Buccaneers, this season's journey far exceeded expectations.
The youthful Bucs were bounced in the VIJHL's North Division Final in five games following an 11-5 setback in Campbell River last week. Three of the five games went to overtime, and only the series finale was settled by more than one goal.
Last March, it was a veteran-laden Bucs squad that was swept in the North Final by the Storm. That team, considered by many to be championship caliber, collected 22 regular season wins.
On paper, the Bucs had a weaker roster this season. Some league observers predicted they could possibly finish behind even Oceanside, the division's eventual last place finisher.
Nanaimo had a rocky start before getting on a season-long roll in late October. What was supposed to be a rebuilding year instead resulted in a franchise-best 32-16-0-1 record.
Bucs head coach and general manager Dan Lemmon told NanaimoNewsNOW the high “buy-in” factor from the players and how tight-knit the team was were huge factors in their success.
“This is the funnest year I've had coaching hockey,” Lemmon said. “Obviously winning a lot of games helps that, but it wasn't just winning, it was the way we were doing it, it was the way our team bonded and had each others backs.”
Lemmon said the odds were stacked against them to start the season, but pointed out their focus and work ethic didn't waver.
“This is a team that dealt with adversity all season long. We started 5-9, we lost three 20-year-olds via trade, we came in with two rookie goaltenders and a pair of 16-year-olds.”
Storm head coach Lee Stone said the Buccaneers were a well-rounded team that bought into the system Lemmon was preaching.
“I thought throughout the year that they were the best team we played, maybe not the most talented group,” Stone said. “They had a group of guys that were all on the same page, which at this level is very, very difficult to do.”
Stone said teams like the 2016/17 Buccaneers show what can be accomplished in an ultimate team sport like hockey.
“An example I would use last year at the Cyclone Taylor tournament, we watched the 100 Mile House Wranglers win and go all the way to the Keystone (Western Canada Junior B Championship). Honestly in a lot of ways very similar to the way the Buccaneers played this year, just a team again for a lack of a better way to put it.”
Buccaneers captain Chad Bell, a four year Buc whose junior hockey career just came to a close, said they accomplished a great deal this season.
“Coming in this year, I didn't have a whole lot of expectations,” Bell said. “We had quite a bit younger team, I think we had 13 rookies to start the year. We just grew together really well, things worked out for us.”
Bell said Lemmon and the coaching staff did a great job of utilizing their size and work ethic to cause havoc for opponents all season, with a trademark physical, tenacious brand of hockey.
“The systems that we used in games applied with the character of the team,” Bell said.
2016/17 Buccaneers' year-end award winners:
- Energy Player - Billy Walters
- Most Sportsmanlike - Dylan Hartl
- Most Dedicated - John Hawthorne
- Most Improved - Seamus O'Toole
- Rick Rat Award - Trey Watson
- Leading Scorer - Dawson Heathcote
- Unsung Hero - Nolan Richardson
- Rookie of the Year - Dawson Heathcote
- 3 Stars - Trent Bell, Chad Bell, Dawson Heathcote
- Best Defenseman - Clayton Peace, Dylan Hartl
- MVP - Chad Bell, Trent Bell
- Playoff MVP - John Hawthorne
- Coach's Pick - Chad Bell, Nolan Richardson
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