Langley Knights bring junior hockey back to George Preston arena

The coach’s room, tucked in a corridor behind the north stands of the George Preston Recreation Centre, was dark, save for an orange glow emanating from a table lamp.

Adorned in track pants and a T-shirt, Langley Knights owner, head coach, and general manager John Craighead leaned back on his chair, speaking about bringing junior hockey back to the Brookswood barn for the first time in five years.

It’s an ambitious venture, to be sure. This is the first ever junior B team to call the 41-year-old GPRC home.

“There is absolutely no question the buzz is going to be great when people hear and see what we’ve done here,” Craighead said.

The building is steeped in hockey history.

A few incarnations of B.C. Hockey League Langley squads have gone to battle on the GPRC ice surface, including the junior A Lords, Eagles, Thunder (before changing their name to the Hornets) and finally, Chiefs, who, after moving to the Langley Events Centre, relocated to Chilliwack in 2011.

Craighead is confident fans will come to the GPRC to watch the junior B Knights, and as added incentive, all players registered with the Langley Minor Hockey Association will be admitted free to every home game.

Another promotion has all fans admitted free to the Knights’ Pacific Junior Hockey League home opener on Thursday, Sept. 11, when they host the Mission City Outlaws. As well, the first 200 fans through the door will receive a free Knights program.

And yet one more added bonus this season: SKY Helicopters is giving away free flights at every home game.

“This place has been dormant for five years without a junior team,” Craighead said. “And the buzz in the building along with the staff from the Township and the managing company, Rec Ex… they’re really excited.”

GPRC general manager Norm Kassis has “bent over backwards for us and welcomed us with open arms,” Craighead said.

Langley Township administrator Mark Bakken was also a big reason why the Knights moved to Brookswood from North Delta, he added.

Coaching comes naturally to the 42-year-old Craighead. He guided the PJHL’s North Delta Devils for the past two years, prior to before their move to Brookswood. And he has two sons, Darien and Tristan, both forwards who he’s coached since they were toddlers.

Darien is heading into his sophomore year with the BCHL’s Langley Rivermen; Tristan will suit up for the Knights for a third season after junior A tryouts in Lloydminster, Alta., and in Salmon Arm.

Craighead had the tough task of sorting through 110 players at the Knights’ prospect camp, and whittling them down to 57 for the team’s main camp.

From those 57, he formed a tentative roster and an affiliated roster.

“We had an amazing turnout,” Craighead said. “There’s been a lot of hype on the new junior team coming here. We’re really not allowed to affiliate with any BCHL teams, so we can’t really say we’re affiliated with the local Rivermen.”

That said, Craighead noted that through the “hockey relationship” he has with the Henderson family  – including Rivermen owner Roy Henderson and his son Bobby, who is the head coach of the BCHL team – he has been able to give players on the outside looking in a shot at playing junior this season.

“I attended their camp, and ended up picking up four U.S. players out of their program that were just falling a little bit short, and were heading back to the States,” Craighead said. “I asked them if they wanted to come down and see the opportunity that I can provide for them, and they’re going to stay.”

Craighead is also excited about having on board a pair of 1998-born forwards from Surrey, Nicolas Bizzutto and Oliver Alcock, both of whom he believes have the potential to make an impact.

Both played midget rep hockey last season.

“I believe they are diamonds in the rough,” Craighead said.

Going into their first season in Brookswood, the Knights will be a hard-working, aggressive team, their bench boss said.

On a personal level, Craighead literally battled his way to the pro ranks, suiting up in more than 600 games over a 13-year career that saw him play for 16 teams spanning eight leagues and four countries.

He saw some exhibition action in 2002 with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks before playing a full season for the Canucks’ AHL affiliate at the time, the Manitoba Moose. Six years earlier, he enjoyed a five-game regular season stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I was more of a physical type, working type player that created opportunities through fitness and a little bit more of a violent game, but this [PJHL] league has really changed,” Craighead said. “I played in this league 27 years ago when they called it ‘jungle B’, where you could have up to three fights a game and there was no fight limit on the season.”

The league has since evolved.

Players can only drop the gloves three times a year and after that suspensions are doled out.

After a fourth fight, the league’s board of governors reviews the players, and after scrap No. 5, a player is in jeopardy of being banned from the PJHL.

But toughness is more than about bare-knuckle fighting, Craighead stressed: “I’m not looking for someone to come out and fight for us, I’m looking for more of a team toughness, where guys will stand up for each other. Whether they drop the gloves or not, that’s entirely up to them. If they want to represent themselves and stick up for themselves like that, in the heat of the moment,  sometimes those things happen, that’s why they allow fighting, but we definitely don’t promote it.”

He added, “I do have a little bit of muscle in my lineup, there’s no question about that, but our team game is going to be more of a two-way skilled team than a Broad Street Bullies type of organization.”

The team’s objective is modest, yet simple.

“In the inaugural year of the Langley Knights, our goal is to make the playoffs,” Craighead said.

And while team goals are key, a top priority for Craighead is to help his players graduate to the next level of hockey.

“Obviously we understand that we have 49 cards to use. We didn’t use all 49 last year, but we went through high 30s, and I do believe we may even have hit 40,” Craighead said. “We want to get them called up [to junior A].”

Jockeying for fans with the other local junior B team, the defending PJHL champion Aldergrove Kodiaks, shouldn’t be an issue, considering that Aldergrove is a half hour drive from Brookswood on a day when there’s light traffic.

The Knights switched conferences with Port Moody this season, meaning they’ve shifted from the Tom Shaw to the Harold Brittain to join Aldergrove, Abbotsford, Ridge Meadows, and Mission City.

Aldergrove and Langley have a natural rivalry, in Craighead’s opinion.

“It goes back,” he said. “People are proud of their communities.

The Knights’ roster includes Tristan Craighead, Alex Kalau, Donavan Shambeau, Dylan MCann, Levi De Waal, Nicolas Bizzutto, Oliver Alcock, Colin Catchpole, Jackson Surbey, Carson Rose, Jayden Gill, Jordan Gracie, Mitchell Biermann, Blake Gorill, Connor Petry, Isaiah Piers, Jake Gusche, Mackenzie Hollis, Hayden Smyr, Jake Fricks, and goaltenders Nickolas Trenciansky and Cole Forbes.

The Knights are desperately seeking volunteers, in every capacity related to the hockey club.

To help out, call the team’s volunteer coordinator Leanne Hildson at 604-307-6367.

Visit the Knights website by clicking here.

Puck drop

A well-known former Vancouver Canuck will visit the GPRC tonight (Sept. 11) for the Knights home opener.

The Knights announced on Twitter that Cliff Ronning, a centre who was part of the Canucks team that marched to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final before losing to the New York Rangers, will drop the puck for the ceremonial opening face-off prior to the game between Langley and Mission City.

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