By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008
VICTORIA, British Columbia – With 19 players under NHL or AHL contract with the parent Edmonton Oilers, the Stockton Thunder were the trendy pre-season pick to win the Pacific Division of the ECHL. Because of the 2007-08 divisional championship banner to be raised Friday at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, the Victoria Salmon Kings are an early favourite to again take the West Division.
The clubs, however, are a combined 1-4 heading into the Salmon Kings home opener tonight at 7 p.m. The Salmon Kings are 1-2, with the Thunder winless so far at 0-2. But don’t let that fool you. Both will be heard from as the season unfolds and are, in many ways, the poster teams for the ECHL, the main pro developmental league below the AAA-level AHL.
The Salmon Kings answer all those Oilers prospects on Stockton with eight NHL or AHL contracted players of their own. Seven of them are from the parent Vancouver Canucks’ system, the latest being six-foot-three defenceman Travis Ramsey, who was sent down from the AHL Manitoba Moose yesterday and will be in uniform on Friday.
“Both of these rosters [Victoria’s and Stockton’s] have a ton of prospects and their NHL and AHL teams have invested money in them and are looking at these guys to play at those levels one day,” said Salmon Kings GM and head coach Mark Morrison.
“The ECHL is a developmental league and this is what it’s all about.”
For 21-year-old former Peninsula minor hockey players Dan Gendur, under contract to the Canucks, and Jordie Benn, under contract to the Moose, yesterday’s Salmon Kings practice at their old Panorama Leisure Centre rink brought back memories. They started on that ice surface as kids and returned yesterday as rookie pros on career missions.
“It’s about getting quality minutes with the Salmon Kings, playing my game, and showing what I can do while helping the Kings win,” said forward Gendur, a Canucks’ 2007 draft pick, who was sent to Victoria after four games with the Moose.
“Playing in the NHL is every Canadian kid’s dream. This is another step along the way.”
Yet it’s a unique one in that it will take place in front of family and friends.
“I went away to play junior [in the WHL at Prince George and Everett, Wash.], and I’ve never played in front of a Victoria crowd before [tonight],” said Gendur, who completed his local youth hockey with the Racquet Club.
Forward Brady Leavold, who joined the Salmon Kings as a late-season signing last spring following the elimination of his junior Kelowna Rockets in the WHL playoffs, has played before Victoria crowds and knows what to expect tonight. Leavold signed in the Tampa Bay Lightning system over the summer, but the Salmon Kings retained his ECHL rights. That means when he was sent down from Norfolk of the AHL, it was to Victoria and not the Lightning’s ECHL farm team in Augusta, Ga.
“From my time here last season, I can tell you the fan support in Victoria is better than it is in much of the AHL,” said Leavold.
“In my games in Norfolk, they got only about 3,000 fans. On an AHL road game I played in Hamilton, there were only 1,800 fans in the Copps Coliseum. We were getting crowds of 5,000 and 6,000 here in Victoria during some of those games late last season.”
Despite the crowds, however, Leavold is working toward getting back to Norfolk.
“From the WHL to the ECHL was a big jump and from the ECHL to the AHL was a big jump . . . I have to keep my feet moving and have a good season in Victoria to show [the Lightning] what I can do,” he said.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed, but at the same time I’m excited to be here and prove myself in Victoria.”
At the other end of the career spectrum, the Salmon Kings have officially filled their fourth and final veteran slot (260 or more games of pro experience) with an old foe from the Alaska Aces. All-round forward Olivier Filion hounded the Salmon Kings over four seasons with the Aces but a move to France this fall didn’t work out for the 26-year-old graduate of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the Quebec Major Junior League. The Salmon Kings were quick to pounce.
“We now have two Salmon King killers from the past with us [Filion and also former Utah Grizzlie Olivier Labelle] and hopefully they can do for us what they used to do against us,” said captain Wes Goldie.
The Salmon Kings and Thunder meet tonight, tomorrow and Sunday to open Victoria’s 36-game home schedule. Although Stockton drew 8,723 fans for its home opener last weekend, and led the ECHL last season with 6,648 fans per game, Morrison warned not to underestimate the impact his team’s fans also make.
“We expect a lift because our loud crowd can affect the tempo of a game and swing momentum,” said Morrison.