Cayden Kraus got the bears flying with the Bulldogs.
The soon-to-be 18-year-old has chipped in nine goals for Alberni Valley of the British Columbia Hockey League so far this season, but none have been more memorable than the one he scored most recently. Not only did the third-period tally help Kraus pass the eight goals he scored last season, but also unleashed a furry fury during the team's Teddy Bear Toss game on Dec. 11. The Whistler resident tallied the team's first and only goal in a 2-1 loss to the Wenatchee Wild as Port Alberni residents bombarded the ice with plush toys for local hospitals and seniors' centres.
"It was nice to be a part of that and see the town give back to the community," Kraus said, adding he was just shooting the puck in the direction of a crowded net hoping it would find daylight. Sure enough, it did.
It's been a season of steady progress for Kraus, who moved with his father to the resort two years ago.
"Being my second year, I'm building up my confidence even more each game," he said. "I'm learning more things every game and just getting better."
Kraus, who's originally from Winnipeg, has plenty of prairie elbow grease, which he brings to the coast. Though he stands just 5-10, he sees opponents regularly underrate him as he's not afraid to back down from players who might well tower over him.
"I'd say I'm a very gritty guy. Not many people like me when I play against them. I take pride in working hard and using my size to my advantage," he said.
Head coach Kevin Willison appreciates Kraus' adjustment from the Hockey Manitoba Program of Excellence to the BCHL.
"He made a great adjustment, especially for the size he is... but certainly plays a lot bigger than that," Willison said. "His role is energy. He's one of our hardest-working guys."
The Bulldogs are looking to climb out of a hole dug early in the season after winning just one game in October. They've been better since, and though they are in the Island Division basement, they are only five points behind the Nanaimo Clippers for the division's final playoff spot.
"Right now, nobody expects too much out of us, so that's something we can use to our advantage. We can be the underdog and come from behind," Kraus said.
"We're so young and it takes time to get used to the league and develop as a player," he added. "It took time and a lot of hard work.
Kraus noted that early in his BCHL career last season, he got to line up against Tyson Jost, Dante Fabbro and the rest of the Penticton Vees. Last June, both Jost and Fabbro were selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft in slots normally reserved for players from major junior leagues, American colleges or European programs. With puck dreams in mind, it was a boon for Kraus to line up against those high-pedigree players so soon.
"I learned my lessons pretty quick. I try to learn from players like that," he said.