The British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League (BCIHL) season begins in September, but it’s what happens in March that provides the most lasting memories.
The Selkirk College Saints and the Vancouver Island University Mariners drop the puck on the league’s semi-final series starting Friday and a season’s worth of toil has all come down to what is guaranteed to be an exciting best-of-three. The Saints second place finish in the 24-game regular season means the drama will unfold at the Castlegar & District Recreation Centre.
“We are feeling confident heading into the playoffs and obviously excited that we were able to clinch home ice for the first round, which was one of the goals we set out at the beginning of the season,” says Saints head coach Brent Heaven.“We accomplished our goal in large part because of the way played in the second half of the season. In the first half we had some ups and downs, but we have really started to settle our play down and play like a team.”
The Saints and Mariners have built one of the league’s most heated rivalries since the latter joined the BCIHL in the 2017-2018 season. The teams met in a feisty semi-final series last March that was captured by the Saints in two straight thanks to Tyler Hartman’s overtime winner in Game 2. In this year’s regular season, the series was level at 3-3.
Several former Saints are now suiting up for VIU as they continue to pursue their post-secondary education and hockey careers. Alex Milligan, Seth Schmidt, Jordan Rauser and Tyler Kerner will all be back in known surroundings this weekend taking on foes with familiar faces. Former Saints all-star Dallas Calvin started the season with the Mariners, but his season ended early in the second semester due to injury.
“We have prepared hard and we have done what we needed to do with systems to make sure we have a plan to play against anybody,” Heaven says about the semi-final series. “At this point, it’s about playing Saints hockey which means playing with pride and for the crest on the front of the jersey.”
The 2018-2019 regular season was defined by a balanced offensive attack, steady defence and solid goaltending. Rookie forward Edward Lindsey finished fourth overall in league scoring with 27 points, but the team’s success depends on all four lines contributing. The Saints coaching staff will have a difficult decision on who to start in goal with both Patrick Zubick and Tallon Kramer proving they are worthy of carrying the team to a championship.
With a team comprised of more rookies than veterans, another important factor for success will be understanding the brevity of the BCIHL post-season. In junior hockey, successful playoff runs can last a couple of months, but in the BCIHL a team only needs to win two three-game series to capture a provincial title.
“You can’t waste one game in this league because that can dictate what happens to your season,” Heaven says. “Over the last month we have built more of a playoff atmosphere in practice settings and the way we approach our games. There are no seven-game series, so we need to be both physically and mentally prepared. There is no time to waste and we need to put everything we have into the next two weeks.”
The most important factor in the ultimate outcome is likely to be the seventh-man advantage. When students and community supporters pack the Castlegar & District Recreation Centre, the Saints have historically repaid the crowd with plenty or reasons to cheer. The Saints won four straight BCIHL championships between 2013 and 2016, with all titles claimed at home.
“Home ice is huge for us,” says Heaven. “If you look at the history of this program, when we have had success, our record at home is incredible. It all comes down to that support, the big crowd getting behind the team amps up our energy on the ice. It makes it difficult for the teams that come into our building and gives us a huge advantage because we get to feed off our crowd.”
The winner of the series will meet the winner of the Trinity Western University and Simon Fraser University semi-final. The Saints take on the Mariners starting Friday night at 7 p.m. Game Two is scheduled for Saturday night at 7 p.m. and if necessary on Sunday at 6 p.m. Tickets for the game are $10 for adults and $7 for students/seniors/youth with kids under six free. Season passes are not valid for playoffs.