Along with previewing this game, the first against the Chilliwack Chiefs in their arena, I will also finish my closer look at the Spruce Kings divisional rivals. With Prince George playing out of the Coastal Conference and specifically the Mainland Division this season, I profiled the other teams and their history before the Spruce Kings first visit to their arenas (Surrey Eagles, Langley Rivermen and Coquitlam Express).
Unlike the other three, there is a familiarity with the Chilliwack Chiefs although that is really just a footnote now. In the summer of 2011, the Quesnel Millionaires ceased operations in the Gold Pan City and essentially moved the franchise to Chilliwack where it amalgamated with a piece of the fractured Langley Chiefs team. That team used to be located in Chilliwack, sound confusing ... well maybe a little.
In fact there has been a long standing love/hate relationship between Chilliwack and Langley when it comes to junior hockey in the Fraser Valley. That history dates back to 1978 when the Chilliwack Eagles played three seasons in the predominately farming community before relocating to Langley to become the Eagles from 1981-1987. Then the team flew back to Chilliwack as the Eagles for two more seasons before heading to Ladner for a single season where it was known as the Penguins. The franchise then moved to Bellingham as the Ice Hawks before being bought by the Trail Smoke Eaters in 1995.
When Chilliwack lost their Eagles, the City bought the Richmond Sockeyes franchise and joined the British Columbia Hockey League in 1990 as the Chiefs (the Sockeyes reformed in the Junior B Pacific International Junior Hockey League). That franchise stayed put for sixteen seasons finishing first in their division six times including their first season (1990-91) and last season (2005-06). Coincidentally they lost both those times in the semi finals but do have three League Championships to their credit (1995, 2000 and 2002).
In 2004 a brand new arena was built in Chilliwack called Prospera Centre; although the Chiefs did get to play out of the building in their final season, it was intended for a major junior tenant that was coming in for the 2006-07 season. The arrival of the Bruins meant that the Chiefs had to go. Over in Langley the Hornets had been struggling financially and the ownership there was eyeing up the market in the Okanagan. All the pieces seemed to come together perfectly, the Hornets moved to West Kelowna to become the Warriors leaving an arena open for the displaced Chiefs to play out of.
The Chiefs who got to play out of a new building in 2005 also got to christen another new building as the Langley Chiefs took up occupancy in the Langley Events Centre, this time for two seasons. Following the 2010-11 season, the Langley Chiefs ownership group split up the assets with one group staying in Langley and the other group retaining the rights to the Chiefs franchise name.
In what seemed like an extremely short time, the Chilliwack Bruins announced that they were leaving the Fraser Valley for the Provincial Capital to become the Victoria Royals and the Quesnel Millionaires were making announcements that they could not afford to continue playing in the BCHL. Almost overnight the three pieces all came together - team, arena and franchise name. It happened so fast that the BCHL had no choice but scratch out the Quesnel Millionaires name and insert the Chilliwack Chiefs into the Interior Division.
The Chiefs were welcomed back by the city and have enjoyed great a fan base for their home games out of Prospera Centre. The arena itself was built in 2004 and seats 5,000 fans for a hockey game. Fan attendance over the past two seasons has shown no love lost for junior hockey in the Valley. On December 29th, they set a franchise record attendance of 3400 and at their last game had 2400.
Prior to the Christmas break the Chiefs were holding down top spot in the Mainland Division but have since watched the Surrey Eagles soar past them. Now two points back of first, the Chiefs are looking to get back on track after stumbling on their return from the Christmas break with a record of 1 and 3. The Spruce Kings haven't fared much better going 1 and 2 to start the New Year.
During the trade deadline, the Chiefs picked up one big piece in Philip Zielonka from the Coquitlam Express. They did give up Ben Israel and Garrett Forster in the deal but now have arguably the top forward line in the League along with Luke Esposito and Austin Plevy. The three combine for a total of 125 points (Esposito: 13G, 36A, Plevy: 18G, 24A, Zielonka: 20G, 13A).
As we know now, the Spruce Kings were engaged in trade talks but in the end stayed pat with the roster as it was when they left for the roadtrip. Earlier in the week there was a change made with one player opting out and another being brought in. Tanner Fjellstrom, who had missed much of the beginning of the season with an injury, informed the team early in the week of his decision to pursue his schooling. David Stephens, who had been at home recovering from an injury suffered earlier in the year while playing with the Moncton Wildcats, was made available and arrived in Prince George late Tuesday night.
Stephens has a couple of seasons of major junior experience and is also familiar with Prince George having played a couple of seasons with the Cariboo Cougars. In fact Stephens and Lyndon Martell were linemates and showed a chemistry at the major midget level that led to both putting up some serious offensive numbers. In the 2009-10 season, Martell was rolling along at better than two points a game (10GP, 12G, 11A) and was then called up by the Spruce Kings. Stephens played out the season with the Cariboo Cougars finishing with 56 points in 40 games (23G, 33A).
With Martell drawing back into the lineup after his own injury problems this season, the two will be on a line together with high flying Coltyn Hansen. If they can generate the chemistry they had when playing together coupled with the speed of Hansen, this line could quickly become a very potent production line for Dave Dupas and the Spruce Kings.
Both teams will be looking to get back on the right track after sluggish starts following the Christmas break. But don't expect either team to have an easy time finding the back of the net. For Prince George, Kirk Thompson has been the team's best player and turned aside 112 of 117 shots he faced last weekend. Thompson's numbers have been consistent throughout the season and his last five games have seen those improve even more.
Coming into the game tonight, Thompson sits with a save percentage of 91.8 and a goals against average of 2.64. Other numbers for the veteran goaltender include three assists and a pair of shutouts. The Spruce Kings will need Thompson to be on his game again tonight. Even though they come into the game with a .500 record in their last ten outings, the Chiefs have the League's best penalty kill (86%) and the fourth overall powerplay (22%).
The Chiefs have some other pretty impressive stats like a positive goal differential of 25 with an average of 3.37 goals for per game and 2.66 against. Overall they are the fourth best team in the League and have a 2-0 record against the Spruce Kings this season after posting back to back shutout wins in a double header to end the month of November.
With the playoff push now officially underway, the Spruce Kings are looking at this game tonight as a good test. There are only twenty games remaining in the regular season and the Spruce Kings will have some tough tests ahead of them starting with this one tonight in Prospera Place.
The game will be broadcast live tonight beginning with a pregame show at 6:35pm and scheduled puck drop at 7:00pm. Ron Gallo will have the call of the game on 93.1 CFIS-FM with a free online audio broadcast available on the Spruce Kings MIXLR.com channel and the pay-per-view on FASTHOCKEY.com. Following the game, the team will return to their home base in the Fraser Valley and prepare to face the Coquitlam Express on Saturday night.