The Vancouver Giants had quite the offseason. After missing the WHL playoffs for the second straight year, the organization decided that some drastic changes were necessary. The Giants now move into the 2016-2017 season with a new general manager, a new head coach, and most noticeably, a new home. After 14 years in the storied Pacific Coliseum, the Giants have moved out into the Fraser Valley and will play in the relatively new and state-of-the-art Langley Events Centre. The Giants will look to captivate their new fan base in their home opener of Friday night, as they take on the Everett Silvertips.
General manager Glen Hanlon has significant ties to the Coliseum, having played in it as a Vancouver Canuck from 1978-1982, but he acknowledges that that the LEC offers a lot more to the Giants. “We’re in a building now that the Coliseum couldn’t offer anymore,” said Hanlon. “The major thing that (the LEC) offers us is an environment that is going to be loud, and that’s conducive to kids playing exciting hockey.” Attendance figures have continuously dropped for the Giants in the last three seasons, and Hanlon believes that the move to the Langley can spark excitement. “We really like the demographics in the Valley area,” said Hanlon. “There’s lots of families, and we all know that junior hockey is a family entertainment business. … So we like the fact that we feel we’re part of that community, while also having a connection to the Vancouver name.”
On the hockey side of things, Hanlon’s underlying goal in his first offseason as GM was to build continuity. In the past year, the Giants have had multiple players leave the team for various reasons, which is something Hanlon wants to avoid. “We’re trying to create some form of stability. We’re trying to do our homework in making sure that the players we bring in show character, and they want to be excited about being here,” he said. Perhaps the most glaring issue with continuity and the Giants in recent years has been with the coaching staff. The team has gone through three head coaches since Don Hay left the team in 2014. The Giants hope that first-time WHL head coach Jason McKee is the long-term answer. McKee was hired after six successful years with the Alberta junior A league’s Spruce Grove Saints, in which he led the team to three provincial championships.
It appears as though captain Tyler Benson and the team’s 2016 top scorer Ty Ronning will not be in the lineup on Friday night, as they continue to the preseason with their respective NHL teams. During the NHL draft in June, Benson was selected in the second round by the Edmonton Oilers, and Ronning went in the seventh to the New York Rangers. McKee believes he has prepared his team to be tough on any given night without relying on a select few players to carry the load. “We want to create depth throughout our lineup: up front, goaltending, defense,” said McKee. “We want to be able to wear teams down, and roll our lines. It’s a wave after wave kind of thing, rather than one or two guys having the pressure of saving a hockey team.”
The players have optimism that this group will be successful in having a bounce back campaign. “It’s a new group of guys, but I think we’ve got the group that can get it done and bring it to playoffs,” said defenceman Matt Barberis. “Everybody seems to fit in. It feels like we’re right at home; there’s no other way you’d want it.” Forward Johnny Wesley noted that the team has ramped up the energy throughout the preseason, and that there has been a positive atmosphere in the dressing room. “We’re definitely a young squad,” said Wesley, “and there’s lots of energy in the room. Guys are pushing each other hard in practices, and the vibe has been pretty good in the room. We’re feeling pretty good and looking to get a couple of big wins in the weekend.” Both Barberis and Wesley come from White Rock, so the change to the LEC is an exciting move closer to home.
After missing the playoffs in the previous two seasons, the Giants are hungry for another chance to compete for the Mann Cup. “We want to get into the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to win a championship,” said McKee. “I think that’s the goal every year… This year is no different with this group. We want to get in, give ourselves a chance, finish as high as we can, and see where that takes us.” The Giants went 1-5 in exhibition games, although McKee thinks those games were a solid learning experience for his team. “The difference between winning and losing is so small in this league,” said McKee. “We’ve learned some tough lessons along the way, but thankfully its been in exhibition, and hopefully we can carry those forward.”
Last season the Everett Silvertips finished ninth in the WHL with a record of 38-26-5-3, and they should provide a tough test for the Giants for the first two games of the season (the second will be played on Saturday night in Everett). The Giants will look to start second-year goalie Ryan Kubic on Friday night. Last season Kubic went 17-24-4-2 with a 3.31 goals against average and a 0.898 save rate.
Hockey legend Gordie Howe was a part owner of the Vancouver Giants, so they will honour him in their first game since his passing in June. There will be a pre-game video salute, and the players will wear special jerseys with his name and famous number No. 9. “We know that he was passionate about our team,” said Hanlon. “He wasn’t just a figurehead. He came; he was excited; he knew the scores; he knew where we were at all times in the standings, and he was excited to be a part of the Memorial Cup team. For us to be able to him as a part of the Giants legacy is important.”