PORT HARDY—When Andrew Laming agreed to take on the post of head coach for the North Island Eagles rep hockey program, he figured he’d landed a fairly cushy gig.
That all changed this summer when nearly 80 North Island youth hockey players turned out for spots on four competitive teams.
“When I took on the job, the talk was we’d have one rep team — maybe,” said Laming. “We’re off to a good start.”
The large and, frankly, surprising, turnout means the Eagles will field all four competitive-level squads — midget, bantam, peewee and atom development — for just the second time in five years.
Two weeks of tryouts wrapped up at Don Cruickshank Memorial Arena in Port Hardy last weekend, and the first round of “tiering” games, to determine competitive divisions for the coming season.
Play begins this Saturday when the peewees host Comox at 12:15 p.m. and the bantams host Victoria at 2:30, both games in Port Hardy.
The Eagles draw players from the Port Alice, Port Hardy and Port McNeill minor hockey associations, which has included players from Woss, Sointula and, in recent years, an increasing turnout from Alert Bay.
Because of the uncertainly of turnout in the weeks leading up to tryouts, coaching slots for the upper age groups were only finalized in the days leading up to the start of practices. Dan Slater, a first-time rep coach, takes the helm for the midgets, though he has experienced support from D’arcy Deacon of Port Hardy and former rep midget assistant Rob Brittain of Port McNeill.
Ray Bono of Port McNeill steps in as head coach of an intriguing atom development club. With six returning players from last year’s surprising newcomer team and the addition of several skilled first-years making the leap from the novice level, the atoms shape up as impact players in Vancouver Island’s recreation division.
Marty Gage of Port Hardy moves up from atom coach to lead the peewees this season. He’ll keep six standouts from his 2012-13 atom development club, most of whom played on a successful spring traveling team from Vancouver Island, to mix with returning second-year players from last year’s peewee team.
The team that may have been the biggest question mark coming into the current season, is the 13-14-year-old bantams. The team will be coached by Boni Sharpe of Port McNeill, who has coached an all-girls Tri-Port team for the past two years — first as peewees in 2011-12 and then as bantams last season. She had planned to coach her core group of five North Island bantam girls on a North Island squad filled with players from elsewhere on the Island and Lower Mainland, but the loss of several Powell River players due to unworkable ferry schedules shut down her proposed girls team.
Instead, the five local girls tried out for — and made — the Eagles bantam team, which did not compete last year due to low turnout at tryouts.
“If my girls couldn’t play on their own team, I wanted them to have a chance to keep their skills up at a competitive level,” said Sharpe. “I encouraged them to try out, and they all made the (bantam) team.
“We’re sort of a mixed bag of beans.”
The Eagles bantams are a blend of the aforementioned girls — Emma Mitchell, Kerrigan Sharpe and Mercedes Trevor of Port McNeill and Rebecca Spafford and Tiffany Watson of Port Alice — several second-year bantams whose last experience with contact hockey came as peewees with the Eagles two years ago, and a number of first-year bantams seeing contact hockey for the first time.
“It’s rare, but not unprecedented, for a woman to coach at this level,” Laming said, noting the posting of Port McNeill’s Liza Furney as an Eagles coach in the 2007-08 season. “There’s going to be a huge learning curve for those (bantam) kids, and a huge learning curve for the coaching staff.
“But that’s our goal across the association. We want to make it a learning experience for all the kids, but also to keep it fun. We want to make it so no kid wants to quit hockey.”