Frustration, disappointment and heartbreak could describe the feelings among the Coquitlam Express these days.
Despite trailing the Langley Rivermen by three points for the final playoff spot with 12 games left in the B.C. Hockey League's regular season, Coquitlam refuses to relinquish hope.
For team president Darcy Rota, it's an important element that can't be underestimated during the next few weeks.
A member of the Express ownership group, Rota agrees the season hasn't unfolded as planned, but credits the players for displaying dogged determination.
Bad luck began to dog the team early, beginning with the first game of the season when veteran defence-man Jason Bird was lost to a severely separated shoulder. A similar injury cost them Alexander Kerfoot, the New Jersey Devils' draft pick, in late November - and since then the club has grasped at glimmers of hope with limited success.
At 18-25-1 and with 11 games remaining, including games in Vernon and Penticton this weekend, the team has had to embrace an optimistic outlook.
While the focus of head coach and general manager Jon Calvano is on keeping the playoff drive alive, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the future.
First and foremost, Rota said discussions on a new lease agreement with the city are moving in a good direction.
"We're working on things with the city and should have something to announce soon," he said.
On the ice, the returns for the Jan. 10 trading deadline are also expected to be worth the wait - as along with 17-year-old Garrett Forster and 18-year-old Ben Israel, the team acquired future considerations when it dealt top-three scorers John Siemer, Philip Zielonka and captain Mitch Nardi to Penticton, Chilliwack and West Kelowna respectively.
"We had to make a decision on Jan. 10 and it was difficult for us. In the past we've entered that timeline looking to add some pieces, but the expectations we had on having a great season just weren't going as planned," said Rota. "It wasn't that we wanted to throw in the towel but we wanted to look at next year and get a good look at the young guys we have."
All three trades included future considerations coming back, with Siemer and Nardi both dealt for undefined packages. The moves were contingent on those returns - which won't be announced likely until after the 2012-13 Royal Bank Cup is presented in May - being significant in nature.
"When we decided to do that, to move players of their talent, we drove a hard bargain, and told teams that."
At the same time, the club was excited about the immediate acquisitions. Forster and Israel made quick impressions and have done well with the Express. Western Hockey League veteran Adam Rossignol, who came available at the deadline, was acquired in a separate deal with Alberni Valley with the aim of addressing the sudden holes on the top line.
"I received a call from (Rossignol's) representative and was told that he was going to be released (by Regina of the WHL) and asked if we were interested," recalled Rota. "Here was a player with good offensive skills and someone who I felt wouldn't miss a beat. He could fit in as our No. 1 centre.
"At the same time, Port Alberni needed to move a 20 year old, so we picked up Lars Hepso in the deal and thought that was the basis for a pretty good No. 1 line."
Unfortunately, Hepso was shocked to be traded. A Penticton native, he had so-ingrained himself in the community that he was named Port Alberni's Volunteer of the Year. While Coquitlam reached out and had players call him, the winger decided to hang up his skates.
"That threw us for a loop. (Hepso) was personally devastated to be traded. We had envisioned that he could have helped us but we had to move on and go with the players we have."
Rota saw firsthand last week how the club has come around since the shock of the Jan. 10th deals came down. The former Vancouver Canucks winger made the trip to his hometown and saw the players pull out a 4-3 victory last Sunday.
"The kids' attitudes are really good, after that game they were upbeat and in good spirits," he noted. As to the playoffs: "It's a tough challenge, Langley has three games in hand but we'll see what happens."
In the meantime, the organization is encouraged that a good foundation is in place for next season. Off the ice, Rota is hopeful that they can attract more fans during the upcoming eight-game homestand that starts Feb. 9 against Surrey.
"I always like to look at the positive, and I think what we saw with the Canuck Alumni night - where we had 1,500 fans in the building, there was great energy - is possible more often. We're working on how to get more people in the building all the time."
The league could grow by one if Hockey Canada and B.C. Hockey give final blessings to the Wenatchee Wild joining the BCHL. The U.S. club had its application approved by BCHL governors and received U.S. Hockey's OK to make the move recently.
It will mean more competition for players - especially U.S.-raised talent - but Rota sees the addition as a good thing for the league.
"From my standpoint I'd be very surprised if (Wenatchee) isn't approved."
Still, nothing would set the table for a strong season next year better than a serious push for the final playoff spot this month, said Rota.
"It's been one thing after another this year, from losing (Alexander) Kerfoot in November to Hepso's decision, but there's no excuses. We're still in the mix and we've got to make the most of our chances now."