When the Chilliwack Chiefs hit the ice this fall for the 2015-16 BCHL season, nearly half the roster will come from Connecticut.
Not too far behind, and closing fast, is Abbotsford, which will supply at least four, and maybe more, skaters to the Chiefs.
Abby kid Jordan Kawaguchi returns to lead the offence, joined by three young guns out of the Yale hockey academy.
The same program that brought you Dennis Cholowski last season brings you Darren Rizzolo, Jesse Lansdell and Kohen Olischefski.
All got their feet wet last year with short stints as affiliate players. All are expected to make the leap from the high school Lions, assuming full time roles as 17 year olds.
“The CSSHL (Canadian School Sport Hockey League) is a strong and up-and-coming league, and it’s seen as an alternative to the Major Midget Hockey League,” said Chiefs general manager Jason Tatarnic. “The players we’ve seen come out of that program, they’re good players and you can tell they’ve been developed well.”
Cholowski blazed this trail last year, stepping into the BCHL with barely a hiccup. The baby-faced blueliner had four goals and 27 points in 55 games, and by season’s end had established himself as one of Chilliwack’s most reliable defenders.
His new teammates each made positive impressions last year in limited time.
Olischefski was a dominant offensive force at Yale and already has an NCAA commitment in his back pocket.
In 28 CSSHL games he put up an eye-popping 29 goals and 71 points and will join the Wisconsin Badgers in 2017-18.
“He’s got a very high-end skill-set with good vision and play-making and once his frame fills out and he learns to play a grittier game, he’ll be able to use his skill-set a little bit more,” Tatarnic said. “He’s tall kid who’s just got to get a little thicker and stronger to minimize some of the growing pains he’ll face.”
Listed at five-foot-11 and a sleight 160 pounds, Rizzolo got into six regular season games last season when injuries hit the Chiefs D.
In 22 games at Yale he had eight goals and 22 points.
Like Olischefski, he arrives with an NCAA deal in hand, having committed to Northeastern.
“He skates really well, he’s physical and aggressive and intelligent,” Tatarnic said. “He’s a talented player who probably could have played full-time for us last year, but we already had our two 16 year old spots filled (with Cholowski and Ryan Bowen).”
Tatarnic describes Lansdell as a very physical player who finishes checks.
But to cap him at that would do the kid a disservice.
Lansdell showed plenty of offensive ability at Yale, tallying 17 goals and 55 points in 25 games.
“He’s a smart player who’s good around the net, and he probably has more skill than people give him credit for,” Tatarnic said. “We’re looking for him to bring that physical side and that skill around the net.”
“I like to think of myself as a two-way forward who can get under the skin of opponents,” Lansdell added. “I think people see me as an agitator but I have a different offensive side that maybe people don’t notice right away.”
Of the three newcomers, it was Lansdell who saw the most BCHL action last season. He got into seven regular season matches and four playoff games.
“Playoffs were way more intense and harder hitting,” he said. “I learned that you’ve got to be stronger and quicker and you’ve got to want it more because you’re playing against older guys.”
Lansdell landed his own NCAA deal Monday, signing with Notre Dame.
“Yale’s been great because you’re going to school and you’re surrounded by guys who have the same interests,” Lansdell said. “On the ice, our league had some strong teams that gave us some good competition.”
It speaks to the quality of a Yale program that went 26-1-1 last year that US colleges would want to sign their players so early.
Tatarnic believes Yale’s close connections to the BCHL help.
“I know I talked to Northeastern a few times regarding Rizzolo,” Tatarnic noted. “When schools see a player is going to play in the BCHL, they know that player’s going to develop and it’s easier for them to make that commitment.”
Tatarnic likes to recruit a year in advance, and already has the next wave of Lions lined up.
Forward Parmjot Dhaliwal played for Yale’s 15 year old team last season, posting 25 goals and 59 points in 30 games.
Defenceman Jordan Schulting had six goals and 21 points on the same squad.
“Parm’s another very smart and skilled player who could probably play for us this year, but the best thing for him is to go back and be a leader for Yale,” Tatarnic said. “It won’t surprise me if he has an NCAA commitment after this year as well, and he’s a player we’re pretty excited about.”
“Jordan’s a key guy we were after following our spring camp,” the coach continued. “He’s a little underrated in terms of his offensive instincts and I think people won’t immediately recognize just how good he is.”
There is some risk recruiting so far in advance, but the coach believes positives outweigh negatives.
“I think we have a good handle on identifying the kids who have the skills to do well at this level,” he said. “You have to put your trust and faith into the judgement of you and your staff because once we commit to a kid we stick with it.”
It took Tatarnic time to figure out what’s what and who’s who in BC hockey after moving here from the east coast last summer.
He thinks he’s got it figured out now and there’s a strong possibility even more Yale grads will wear the red, gold and white in the near future.
“I’ll be honest. As a first year guy last year I didn’t know all the kids from BC, but now we’re getting a better grasp of that and we’re in on some of these younger guys,” Tatarnic said. “It’s great that Yale’s so close to us, because we can have those kids at our practices and they’re only 20 minutes away if we need them for a game. Over time you’ll see more and more young kids being integrated into our roster.”