By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007
VICTORIA, British Columbia – Kelly Buchberger, the player-development coach for the Edmonton Oilers, looked down press row Saturday evening at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre and said: “Boy, this Victoria team [Salmon Kings] is a lot better than its record indicates.”
It is, but Buchberger’s reaction shows just how hard it is to dispel entrenched notions once they become hardwired into the hockey community. The streaking Salmon Kings, despite being 9-3 over the past 12 games, have a reputation that goes further back than just the past dozen contests. And that rep has been more like a rap. It hasn’t been easy to skate out of that long, dark shadow. Hence, Buchberger’s surprise in watching the resurgent Salmon Kings sweep all three games against the team he was in town to watch — the Oilers’ ECHL affiliate Stockton, Calif., Thunder.
Buchberger also dispelled another notion hardwired particularly into the Canadian hockey culture, although not so much the U.S. — that is, no matter what supporters of major-junior hockey think, the NHL takes AHL and ECHL minor-pro hockey very seriously. It’s not that the average Canadian fan is not willing to admit that, it’s just that the amateur major-junior rank is the most prevalent and popular level of hockey below the NHL in Canada and has a strong tradition behind it in this country. There is far less exposure here to the AHL/ECHL, which exists in Canada currently only in Victoria, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Toronto.
But Buchberger’s meticulous note-taking while watching the five players Edmonton currently has assigned in Stockton, made it clear the Oilers are keeping right on top of their minor-pro prospects.
After all, what are they but former major-juniors one or two seasons removed from the WHL, OHL or QMJHL? A blue chipper out of junior is not likely to be sent to the AA-level ECHL for development but right to the NHL or perhaps the AAA-level AHL. But then neither do fans in the ‘E’ have to sit through some awfully painful third and fourth lines in major-junior hockey populated by pimply 17 and 18 year olds. That culling has already been done by the time graduating juniors reach the ECHL. In the ‘E’ you get those solidly promising recently-graduated juniors who are a step below the one or two top-grade players most junior teams have, but who are a cut above maybe 90 per cent of the others in major-junior who won’t even make it to minor pro and aren’t going anywhere but the civilian job market.
And NHL player-development departments know the score.
Buchberger motioned to the TV in the SOFMC press box during Friday’s shootout between the Canucks and Blackhawks and remembered something immediately: “See that [Martin] St. Pierre player for Chicago on the screen? He was in the ECHL two seasons ago.”
Buchberger was the kind of limited but hard-edged player who hustled, hit and clawed to make it in the NHL. You sense his admiration and empathy for any pro player in the ranks doing the same and trying to make it to the Show.
Buchberger took advantage of the mild west coast weather to get in some soggy golf in Victoria. But make no mistake: this trip was business. Buchberger, who looks lean and fit enough to still play, took an active role in Stockton practice sessions at SOFMC.
“The ECHL is a great development league with excellent coaching,” said the former Oilers winger, who has three Stanley Cup rings.
“These young prospects of ours [on Stockton] are getting quality pro ice time that will help build their confidence,” added Buchberger, during the Stockton-Victoria treble set of games at SOFMC.
Stan Smyl, the Vancouver Canucks’ director of player development, and Canucks pro scout Jack McIlhargey have both been at SOFMC this season to watch the progress of Canucks prospects placed with the ECHL affiliate Salmon Kings.
McIlhargey echoed the thoughts of the Oilers’ Buchberger, while scouting for the Canucks at SOFMC earlier this month: “We’ve placed a number of players here that we’re watching. It’s always better to be playing lots of minutes in Victoria, and improving, than sitting on the bench in Manitoba [AHL affiliate],” said former Canucks assistant coach McIlhargey.
“That’s how you get better and make the step up to play regularly in the AHL, and from there, the NHL. This [ECHL] is a very good league. It has really improved.”
Because of Canadian hockey history and tradition, there is always going to be a prevalent sentiment in Victoria for the return of the major-junior WHL and the Salmon Kings organization is just going to have to deal with that. But those who want the Dub can look at it this way: Until then, you still get to see many of the WHLers worth seeing, but a year or two after they graduate when they’re bigger, stronger, faster and better.
There’s something to be said for the culling of the herd. And the herd has definitely been culled from junior by the time it reaches the ECHL. You don’t get the blue chippers, and that is a big minus, but you also don’t have to sit through all those other more weak teeny-bopper bits, and that’s a big plus.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007