The man who helped usher the baby Bruins into the Western Hockey League five seasons ago is disappointed with how things seem to be turning out.
Darrell May was the team’s first general manager, his first months on the job spent working from his home with a folding chair and card table. From those surroundings he put together a roster that made the playoffs in their first two seasons, an accomplishment rarely seen from expansion teams. He signed two of the team’s all-time best players, Mark Santorelli and Nick Holden, as free agents and was responsible for recruiting the best player in franchise history when he brought Oscar Moller over from Sweden.
Now a scout with the National Hockey League’s Chicago Black Hawks, May is watching this drama unfold with a heavy heart.
“I’m disappointed for all the fans and the people of Chilliwack who’ve put their time and effort into supporting the team,” he said. “It bothers me personally because I would have liked to have seen more patience and time for this team to grow into what I think it could have been. But patience is a virtue, I guess.”
Through their first two years, May’s Bruins averaged 4,500 fans per game. In year three the on-ice product suffered through a series of unfortunate events. Moller, Santorelli and Holden moved to the pro ranks, Evan Pighin defected to the BCHL and Jadon Potter sufferied a career-ending neck injury. May was released halfway through the season.
“We could have traded first and second round picks to try and patch things up, but that would have damaged the long-term product,” he said. “We had to travel through some rough waters to try and stay the course, and I think the people who really know hockey figured that out. But the ones who couldn’t be patient and maybe didn’t understand the process got turned off by that.”
It was the only non-playoff season in the team’s five years and attendance suffered, dipping to 4,000. Local fans spoiled by years of competitive Chiefs hockey in the BCHL might have struggled to accept a WHL team that consistently lost more than it won.
As the global economic crisis hit and the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat opened their doors 18 down the road, attendance dipped even further over the last two years, sinking to 3.260 per game in 2009-10 before rebounding slightly this year.
“If it was just about hanging banners, there’s only one team per year that does that,” May said, questioning those who viewed a struggling team as a reason to stay away. “Winning is the objective for every team, but it’s about being entertained too. The thing about junior hockey is seeing these players come in as kids and progress up the ladder. That’s what it’s all about and I think most Chilliwack hockey fans are savvy enough to appreciate that. I do believe this is a legitimate WHL market and the argument would be that there are a lot of teams out there drawing a lot worse crowds.”
Fallback options have been bandied about, including the possibility of a return of the BCHL.
May believes what was once a natural fit would be a much tougher sell now.
“If it’s all about just winning and having a winner then they could probably do it, but if it’s about the talent level and the game itself, I think that there’s a big difference between the two leagues,” May said when asked if Chilliwack might re-embrace junior A hockey. “I hope it works out, because Chilliwack’s a great place and they deserve good hockey.”