Jonas Horvath was getting set to hang up his skates from competitive hockey.
But then an old friend came calling.
After "an awful year" in his first Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League season with the Peninsula Panthers in 2012-13, Horvath said he had just about had enough and was focusing on working construction. But then former Whistler Minor Hockey Association coach Joey Ewing, who had been hired by the Comox Valley Glacier Kings of the same league, acquired Horvath's rights and invited him to come try out. Horvath, 20, made the team and was soon named one of its alternate captains, helping the team win a division title and to get within a victory of the league final.
"I had bought myself a new truck and was getting ready to move on from hockey," he said. "(Ewing) convinced me to come try out. I made the team and haven't looked back since. It's been one-and-a-half awesome years here."
Now, just over a year after he thought he was done with the game, Horvath is pushing to extend his involvement into overtime as he's working to earn a post-secondary scholarship.
Horvath said his confidence was waning after the season with the Panthers where he didn't really seem to fit into the team's plans, being shuffled in and out of the lineup, and being stuck on fourth-line duty when he did play. Horvath was promoted to the second line with the Courtenay-based Glacier Kings, and his points-per-game production quadrupled.
"Having a coach that has confidence in you has made a huge difference," he said. "The first year when you're playing junior hockey, it's a totally different ballgame and you have to get used to being scratched and battle through it. You have to work hard when you do get your chances."
Horvath has also been able to help bring along another Whistlerite, Grant Iles, who has been dealing with some of the same issues.
"Last year, even beginning of this year, he was going through the same things that I was," Horvath said.
Iles is grateful to have a "big brother" figure in Horvath as well as a familiar coach in Ewing, so he knows what to expect. There were some growing pains, but he feels he's fitting in just fine.
"This year, I feel more comfortable, I'm getting used to it, and now I'm starting to put up a couple of points," he said. "Everyone's bigger, faster, and stronger."
Ewing also knew what he was getting out of Iles, an "agitator" he complimented for his faceoff work.
Ewing called Iles the "full package" and expects him to be a team building block this season and beyond. Iles, 18, is fifth in team scoring with six goals and 13 assists in 23 games and has already matched his goal total from his rookie campaign.
"It took him awhile to figure out that if he doesn't take penalties then he can score goals and do it all," Ewing said. "He's really come into his own this year."
Ewing credited Horvath for his demeanour and work ethic, in particular, explaining his value to the team.
"Jonas is very hard-working, great in the room, a good leader, a positive kid," he said.
Horvath, 20, has contributed two goals and six assists in 23 games — a slight drop-off in pace from 2013-14, though he feels his all-around game has improved immensely.
"It's been a funky season. I've been playing my best hockey. I'm playing really well defensively. I've been on the power play and penalty kill and I've blocked more shots than I ever imagined," he chuckled. "But I just haven't been able to put the puck in the net. It's just been one of those seasons."
Horvath and Iles are providing some stability to a team that lost 14 players, including its top six forwards, in the offseason. Comox Valley had some early-season struggles against some of the VIJHL's also-rans, but Horvath feels the Glacier Kings are on path to get back on track. Comox Valley is 12-7-4, good for second in the North Division, one point ahead of Nanaimo.
Ewing is originally from Port Alberni, but moved to Whistler when his junior playing career wrapped up. He enjoyed great success with the Whistler Winterhawks bantam and midget rep teams, but after a year coaching the KIJHL's Golden Rockets in 2007-08, knew he eventually wanted to return to the junior ranks.
Ewing knew there was great talent in Whistler, but noted some players had a tough time getting noticed with only a couple of WMHA players moving on to higher ranks. This season, including Horvath and Iles, there are five playing junior 'B' hockey in B.C., while others are playing a level up at junior 'A'. That includes defenceman Taylor Derynck, a Glacier King last year who got the call to the BCHL's Alberni Valley Bulldogs this year.
"We're getting them everywhere and they're working really hard," he said. "They all come from athletic genes and families, so it was a pleasure coaching them."