by Jeff Dubois
For more than two years, Jackson Penney’s to-do list has been three words long and easy to remember.
Win It All.
In May 2007, about four seconds after Hockey Canada announced that Victoria would host the 2009 RBC Cup, Penney got to work. The Grizzlies’ general manager knew that he had two years to assemble a team that would take advantage of its automatic berth into the event. It’s cool to be there, of course, but nobody in Victoria was going to throw a parade for a participant ribbon.
In the time that has passed since that announcement, team management has built a beast. Only one British Columbia Hockey League team scored more goals than Victoria during the 2008-09 regular season and only one allowed fewer. Victoria’s 43 wins led all BCHL clubs, as did their 90 points.
“Through the last two years, I’ve gotten some really good advice from some very well-respected hockey people,” Penney says. “The message has been to be patient and believe in your players, and we’ve done that. When it comes to personnel decisions, we haven’t been sporadic. There’s been a process that we’ve trusted.”
That process has led to a team constructed in three stages since 2007. The first involved selecting players on the team’s current roster who could make an impact on an RBC Cup run two years down the road. Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Justin Courtnall and team captain Brian Nugent highlight that group and both have displayed consistent offensive improvement and leadership skills that have allowed new additions to blend easily into the team.
“The work ethic on this team has been supplied by guys like Brian and Justin,” Penney says. “We’ve had a core group of players who are character guys in the room.”
They also had a former National Hockey League star behind the bench. Midway through the 2007-08 season, the Grizzlies tabbed Geoff Courtnall as the team’s head coach. Penney identifies the choice of the Vancouver Island native, whose 16-year pro career included five seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, as one of the best decisions made by the organization in the lead-up to their RBC Cup run.
“Geoff was the kind of guy who would go through a wall for his team when he played,” Penney says. “You can see every day that the players respect him and that they respond to that.”
The next wave of roster moves came during the summer of 2008.
To add offence, Penney brought forwards Evan Pighin and Derek Lee to the club in separate deals with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. Both paid off – Pighin, who has scored at every level he’s played, tallied 55 points in 50 regular season games while Lee notched 59.
On the blueline, the Grizzlies traded for All-Star Lee Baldwin and RBC Cup veteran Jeff Forsythe to solidify an already talented group. Baldwin went on to lead all BCHL defencemen in scoring during the regular season with 54 points.
“We made a lot of changes last summer and brought in a number of players,” Penney says. “It was a situation where we wanted to give the group a chance to gel and not have to make a dozen moves or have a fire sale during the regular season.”
Once that group came together in September, the results were immediate and decisive. The Grizzlies began the season with 12 wins in their first 14 games, giving the team some breathing room atop the Island Division and allowing management to focus on minor moves to supplement an already successful squad.
The team made only two significant additions during the season. The first brought defenceman Wade Epp on board from Drumheller of the AJHL. The second, completed just before the trade deadline, saw the arrival of another top-end offensive weapon.
“At the beginning of January, we decided we needed a goal scorer so we added Trever Hertz from Quesnel,” says Penney of the two-time 30-goal scorer. “We had a number of playmakers but we looked at a guy like him as a missing ingredient.”
With all the pieces seemingly in place, Penney’s work is done. And while the ultimate verdict on his team won’t come until the end of the event the Grizzlies spent so much time preparing for, their GM has seen the early returns from setting a plan and sticking to it.
“As an organization, we decided what we needed and how we would get it,” says Penney. “We’ve been lucky that the players we brought in have been more than we could have asked for.”
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