It's no secret that hockey has become more of a global game in recent decades, and one look at the nucleus of this year's edition of the Coquitlam Express suggests the club will lean on our neighbours to the south in particular.
Four of the team's core players have ties to the U.S., including starting netminder Cole Huggins, returning offensive threats John Siemer and Brady Shaw, and Minnesota import Sam Majka.
Having posted a 2-2-2 record in the preseason, they get at it in earnest today (Friday), with the onset of the B.C. Hockey League's Showcase Event in Chilliwack.
"I have an American flag on my helmet, so I do promote where I'm from," said Siemer, a California native who put up 28 goals in his rookie campaign last season. "If other guys want to chirp me about it, it just fires me up even more."
Huggins acknowledges that national kinship and embraces the fact that he is likely going to be the lone U.S.-born starter in the league this season.
"It doesn't come up too much, but there's a bit of ribbing there from time to time," he said. "It's pretty cool that we have that amount of U.S. talent on the team."
Hometowns aside, Huggins' storyline this season is more so about redemption than heritage. The Colorado-born netminder went from a backup role in Langley two years ago to posting a 21-6-2 record last season.
This season, he is the undisputed No. 1 and will be backed up by Coquitlam native Daniel Urbani, who spent last year with the Northeast Chiefs of the B.C. Major Midget League. Gone from last year is Khaleed Devji, who recently accepted a scholarship to Salem State University.
"With Cole's experience in the league and based on what he did last year, I think he's earned that right to start with the ball," said Express coach and general manager Jon Calvano. "We have the utmost confidence in him and we're very confident in Dan Urbani; he showed great poise in the exhibition season."
The key losses from last year's club include captain and scoring leader Alex Petan and puck-moving defencemen Clinton Atkinson, who finished fifth in team scoring last year with 59 points in 60 games, and Zach Hodder, who accumulated 33 points in 43 contests last season.
The club does, however, retain the bulk of its major point getters from last season, with returning vets Alexander Kerfoot, Siemer, Shaw, Justin Georgeson, Malcolm McKinney and newlyminted team captain Mitch Nardi expected to pick up the slack.
"I don't really like to set individual goals based on numbers," said Kerfoot, who lit the league up with 69 points in 51 games during his rookie season. "I'm going to try my best on every shift, in every game. If I'm playing well, the points will come."
The new faces on the offensive side of the puck include Zachary Pryzbek and Majka, while the backend will get a boost from Ontario native Callum Hofford, who bagged 19 goals and 42 assists over 64 games while playing out of Toronto's Hill Academy.
Prospects coming from the major midget ranks include league scoring leader Adam Rockwood and Jace Hennig, who had a cup of coffee with the junior A team last season and put up 12 points in 28 games.
"It's all about opportunity for them," Calvano said. "Some guys come up and do exceptionally well, but with some other guys coming up from major midget, they're still trying to find their way. It all depends on the player and how they adapt, and how quickly they're able to adapt."
The team enters today's season-opener in relatively good health, with the exception of Rockwood. The 17-year-old Coquitlam native had his jaw broken in two places after being hit from behind in a recent pre-season game, and it's expected that he'll miss the first two months of the regular season.
Despite that hiccup, expectations remain high after a season that saw the Express finish fourth in the conference with a 3619-3-2 record.
"Like everyone else, our goal is to win a national championship," Calvano said. "We want to be somewhere between 30 and 35 wins. We're just trying to build and keep getting better."
The Express take on Victoria today (Friday) at 4 p.m. before facing off against Cowichan on Sunday at 2 p.m. The team's home opener goes Friday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m., when the Express host Langley.