Chilliwack Chiefs head coach and general manager Jason Tatarnic has taken a Costco approach to offseason roster building, buying bulk from one U-S state.
The Chiefs have signed eight players from one team, the U-18 Connecticut Wolf Pack. The team is a collection of top prep school talent within the state, and won the 2015 Toyota-USA Hockey Youth Tier 1 National Championship mere weeks ago.
Coming to Chilliwack from that team for 2015-16 are forwards Vimal Sukumaran, Kale Kane, Jeremy Germain, Jake Smith, Ben Sharf and Eric Benshadle along with defenceman Zach Giuttari and goaltender Matteo Esposito. And while there’s quantity in Tatarnic’s one-stop recruiting binge, there’s also quality.
“Sukumaran and Kane won their school championship with Salisbury prep too,” Tatarnic noted. “We watched them online and got great scouting reports on them. Doug Messier, their coach with the Wolf Pack, offered great insight and was a pivotal guy getting them to come here.”
The Wolf Pack never practiced together, but gathered weekly, playing a schedule of 31 Saturday night and Sunday morning games.
Matteo Esposito was Tatarnic’s insider.
The goalie is the younger brother of current Chief Mark Esposito and former Chief Luke Esposito. He was destined to come here regardless, but when his Wolf Pack teammates talked about their future hockey plans he pushed Chilliwack.
“We love playing with each other and the week before nationals we talked about being together for another year,” said Sukumaran, who led the Wolf Pack in regular and post season scoring. “Individually, we’re great hockey players, but once you put all of us together, we can do some big-time things. That’s what got us so excited.”
Ex-Chiefs Phil Zielonka and Ben Masella were also in Sukumaran’s ear about Chilliwack, with nothing but good things to say about the city and team.
“There were a couple teams I was thinking about, but this was the best fit for me,” he said. “I’ve heard the program is all about the players and not the personal records and so-forth. Coming from Salisbury and the Wolf Pack, I know what it’s like to win, and Chilliwack’s got a history of winning.”
Sukumaran had three goals and eight points in six national tournament outings, and scored the overtime winner in the championship game. The Montreal native and his Wolf Pack teammates knocked off the nation’s first, third and fifth ranked teams en-route to the title. Sukumaran’s winner came with 20.4 seconds on the clock against the ninth ranked New Jersey Avalanche.
“I’ve dreamt of something like that for years and years, to be that guy who scores that big-time goal to win the big-time tournament,” he said. “It was a dream come true, just unbelievable.”
Sukumaran, Sharf, Kane and Giuttari come to Chilliwack with NCAA commitments already in hand. Sukumaran has committed to the defending Frozen Four champion Providence Friars, Sharf to Colgate, Kane to Vermont and Giuttari to Brown.
Having eight players from one team commit to a BCHL squad is almost unprecedented. Tatarnic can’t recall a similar scenario in his career.
“A big thing for us is having guys like (Craig) Puffer and (Tipper) Higgins have a great experience, then go back home and talk about it,” Tatarnic said. “I know Vincent (Desharnais) talked to Jeremy Germain and his dad. I’ve always said players are your best recruiters. They’re the ones who sell your program.”
“We (coaches) can sell it till we’re blue in the face, and of course we think it’s the greatest place to play,” he continued. “But you’ve always got to have some backup, some player testimonials.”
Tatarnic went into the offseason with the stated goal of making his team grittier and harder to play against.
While guys like Sukumaran, Kane and Germain bring plenty of skill, this group also has sandpaper.
“Sukumaran plays the game hard and he’s a good leader,” Tatarnic said. “He’s skilled, but he’s also very competitive and gritty.”
“Kane’s the same in that he plays the game hard and will go right through you,” he added. “He’s not big but he’s strong, and he’s got a high skill set.”
Germain is a bigger-bodied center who plays a sneaky game. He’s also the son of a former pro.
Eric Germain once played four games for the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings and logged hundreds of games in the minors.
“You may not notice Jeremy all the time, but he’s always around the puck, and when the scoresheet is handed in at the end of the game, he’s found a way to produce,” Tatarnic said.
Sukumaran called Giuttari the best defenceman he’s ever played with and Tatarnic believes he’ll be a key member of the blueline corps.
“Steady eddie up and down the ice, doesn’t make mistakes,” Tatarnic said. “He’s just a solid defenceman and with some of the more offensive minded guys we’ve got on the blueline we thought it was very important to add a guy like Zach.”
Jake Smith had a so-so regular season, (31-12-7-19) but exploded for four goals in six national tournament games.
“He really wanted to be a Chief and that’s what kept drawing us to him,” Tatarnic said. “He had high-end teams talking to him and he wanted to be here.”
Sukumaran called Sharf the best faceoff man he’s seen, and Tatarnic threw a Jake Hand comparison on the table.
“I don’t want to make a direct comparison, but he’s a big kid with good hands who can skate,” Tatarnic said.
Benshadle was a high draft pick in the USHL and can play center or wing.
He impressed Tatarnic by playing through a sports hernia at nationals, producing three goals and four points in five outings.
“He played with a lot of pain and showed us his character level,” the coach said.
And finally Esposito, whose greatest asset, according to Tatarnic, isn’t his last name but his compete level.
“What separated him from some of the other goalies we saw at our spring camp was the way he battled and never gave up on pucks,” Tatarnic said. “He’s very mobile with great feet. He’s won a national championship and he really wants to be here.”
So, mission accomplished with the offseason roster rebuild? Just about everything is set, with a couple balls still in the air.
“We still want to be a high-tempo team, but one that’s a little grittier,” Tatarnic said. “We haven’t added a lot of junior experience, but we have added players who’ve played and performed in a high-pressure tournament.”
“This is definitely a different team than we had last year,” he summed up. “But on paper, we’re happy. We like it.”