The Squamish Wolf Pack are playing one exhibition game, this Saturday, before the official start of their season. For coach Matt Samson it's a chance to test their younger and untried players, and figure out what assignments to give to players.
The biggest test will come Sept. 3 when the Wolf Pack take on the 2009 champion Richmond Sockeyes.
"It's not how I would have chosen to start our season, but I'm excited about it and think we can give them a good battle," said Samson. "We had some great games against Richmond last year and handed them one of their few upsets. We got a lot better in the off-season and they lost some players, so who knows?
The Wolf Pack have signed several new players coming into this season, including Whistler's Nelson Hurd. Hurd is a defenceman who spent last season in Kelowna enrolled in the Pursuit of Excellence hockey academy. He was one of a handful of players to get a card at the Wolf Pack's first prospects camp in June.
Josh Schauerboeck will also return this year after spending the second half of last season sidelined with an injury. Jesse Clemiss is still eligible although he hasn't committed at this point.
From Squamish, forward Jacob Melville is the only new player this year, but Samson likes what he sees in the 17-year-old from Brackendale.
"He's a midget rep player from Squamish and played seven games with us last year," said Samson. "He's a solid two-way player, a good skater, and he's been training hard this summer. He'll probably start on our third line and we'll see what happens from there. He's a good, responsible defensive centre, which is important to us, and he's definitely an upside for our offence."
The goalie position is still up in the air, with Samson looking at two American prospects as well as two goalies from Squamish. That's a contrast to the Wolf Pack at the start of last season - their first in the league - when the team had one of the top goalies in the league but struggled on both offense and defence.
This year Samson's added size, speed and skill, and says the Wolf Pack should be much improved when it comes to scoring goals and playing defence.
"A lot of our core guys were able to return, and we have nine new players that should bring a lot of skill," he said. "One of the biggest problems we had last year was that our power play wasn't very effective and we gave up too many shots, which are both things we've adjusted this year.
"A lot of our guys have a strong offensive upside, we've upgraded our back end where we have some size and some speed. We're looking to spend more time in the other team's end, pinch in the defence a little bit and be more aggressive. I don't think scoring is going to be a big problem for us, although the big thing for us is to get better and get into the playoffs this year."
The PIJHL is broken up into two conferences of five teams, and the top four teams from each conference get a shot at the playoffs. Samson would like to see the conferences dropped - the driving distance isn't great enough to separate the teams - or at least for the top eight teams in the PIJHL to move forward regardless of what conference they play in.
The Wolf Pack struggled in their conference last season but had a winning record playing teams from the other PIJHL conference. Without that division of teams Samson says the Wolf Pack could have qualified for the playoffs in their first season in the league.
On Saturday, Aug. 22 the Wolf Pack is heading to Delta to test their 2009 roster against the Delta Ice Hawks.
The regular season gets underway on Sept. 3 with a trip to Richmond to play the Sockeyes. Last year the Sockeyes won the junior B Pacific International Junior Hockey League title, went on to beat the top teams from the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League and Kootenay International Junior Hockey League to secure a provincial title, then took the overall national title.
The Wolf Pack will play three games at Meadow Park in Whistler again this season to build support though the corridor. The first two games are versus the North Delta Ice Devils, with the first game taking place on Sunday, Sept. 13 and the second on Dec. 20. The Wolf Pack will also be hosting the Port Moody Black Panthers on Feb. 7.
For more information visit www.squamishwolfpack.com.