The smell of fresh ice, the sparks of sharpened skates, the banging of boards and the tapping of sticks.
The sights and sounds of hockey are back for the Prince George Spruce Kings, who after a seven-month wait, took the Kin 2 Arena ice Thursday night (Oct. 1) to start training camp with the 2020-21 BCHL season scheduled to begin Dec. 1.
Excitement, however, is met with some uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the province.
As the team gradually returns to some sort of contact competition in practice, especially with eight exhibition games on the docket, Alex Evin says he’s ready to face the challenge of a two-month training period in his second full season as a head coach.
“It’s nice to be with our team to start. We’re working a lot on our fundamentals and foundation; we’re not too worried about getting into team system-play yet, we’ve got a long way to go until a hopeful December start,” he explained.
“Definitely a new challenge for me and our staff. It’s one that I’m very excited about. I think we’re going to be a lot better come meaningful games with a little more practice time and time to train. The summer was different for everybody in terms of what you can normally do. We’re just trying to progress each week leading up to the regular season.”
.@SpruceKings Training Camp is underway, starting what will likely be an interesting season for the 2020-21 roster 👑 Being the era of COVID-19, players are predominantly wearing the fish-bowl mask. First exhibition game is Oct. 10 in Merritt | #CityOfPG @GoBCHL @PGMatters pic.twitter.com/o2y6zucm3g— Kyle Balzer (@KyleBalzer) October 2, 2020
This was the Spruce Kings’ first on-ice session for its latest campaign, to which they technically remain as the defending Fred Page Cup champions as last year’s playoffs were cancelled by the virus, but the team endured some off-ice training regimens earlier this week.
Evin says a big expectation this year is to be a more grittier team, noting the new crop is already showing much-needed talents.
“I know obviously we were a young team; the guys we're getting back this year, we thought really really improved a lot and played to our identity Our management staff has done a really good job bringing in a few veteran pieces along the way that kind of compliment our style of play. So our speed is a lot more noticeable, even during my first ice time, they’re a lot more competitive and I’m really excited this year. It should be fun.”
There are several returning players, including Kolton Cousins, a 19-year-old fourth-year forward who says he’s happy to see his teammates.
“It’s different with wearing the full visors, but besides that, I think everyone’s buzzing out there,” he said when asked by PrinceGeorgeMatters if this particular training camp felt different with the aspect of COVID-19.
“I know the boys have put in a lot of work this summer and to finally get back into things has been a great feeling to team-bond with all the guys too. They’re great and we’re just happy to be back in PG.”
For Christian Buono, who’s also entering his final junior ‘A’ season after being acquired from Merritt, he’s already fond of the Spruce Kings’ organization and is grateful for making him feel comfortable in a new city.
“This organization puts a lot of time into it. You can tell they treat their players right and, you know, that’s what you want as a player. You want to have coaches and teammates to have your back and I think that’s what we got here.”
Both Cousins and Buono have one goal in mind in helping Prince George capture its second BCHL Championship in three years and to put the team’s success ahead of their own.
Unfortunately, that may have to be done without any fans in the stands should B.C.’s provincial health office reject the league’s first return-to-play proposal.
“We have the best fans in the BCHL and we’d love to have them back, but if we can’t, we’d just love to get back on the ice, just play our hockey, play our style and hopefully they can tag along online,” Cousins remarked when asked about that possibility.
“Hopefully we can get them involved and it should be a good year.”
“In the Spruce Kings world, we’re just really excited to be back onto the ice,” adds Coach Evin about his team’s collective attitude on day one.
“Our group’s done a good job. Everyone seems to be getting along and now we just got to carry that over to the ice.”
Prince George will continue training camp and are set to play its first exhibition game on Oct. 10 in Merritt.
They’ll play five of those contests against the Centennials, two against Cranbrook and one tilt with Trail.