One Whistlerite has graduated from the Campbell River Storm.
But another is rolling in to replace him.
Tyler Welsh parlayed last season's stellar campaign into a spot on the Junior 'A' roster for the Victoria Grizzlies, while defenceman Ben Raffler will look to do the same next off-season. This year, in his first full season in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, Raffler will look to prove himself on the Storm's Junior 'B' blue line.
The defending league, provincial and Western Canadian champions got off to a wonderful start to the season with home wins of 7-0 over Nanaimo and 7-3 over Comox Valley this weekend.
"It's a great group of guys over here, a great atmosphere with all the fans," Raffler said. "It's feeling pretty natural so far. I've got some good D partners who are helping me get settled in on the ice. I got a couple games in last year as well. It was a pretty easy transition so far."
Raffler describes himself as a solid two-way player, though he'd lean toward the defensive side of the game as his strength.
"(I have) great passing, not the best shot, that's for sure," he chuckled, noting his shot is a major area of focus this season.
Among Raffler's teammates is newly minted alternate captain Ryan Grills, a defenceman who is also a Whistlerite.
"We've played hockey for a bunch of years together, so we're good pals," Raffler said. "It's easier to have a guy I already knew here."
Raffler joins Campbell River from the Burnaby Winter Club, where he had a goal and 13 assists in 47 games for the U18 prep squad.
"It's awesome to know that we're the guys that teams are looking to beat. It leaves a bit of weight on our shoulders but it's something that we can come together as a group and handle," he said. "A good goal at the end of the year is to win it all."
Raffler appreciated the opportunity to get in a pair of games with the Storm last season, scoring two points. It was his first time being part of a team where players could be moved out, upping the urgency on an individual level to ensure the right fit with the team.
"It was good to see how the leaders handled it and how they pushed the new guys along during the games and how they got the crowd into it," he said. "It was good for me to see so that I can help out this year."
The Powell River Kings hold Raffler's Junior 'A' rights, and Storm head coach Lee Stone noted it seemed like there was a good chance Raffler might not be a member of the Storm for long, if at all.
"Over the past two years, we've seen a steady stream of improvement," he said. "I know that they (the Kings) are impressed with him and really like his game, too.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he has a real strong year with us, to see him make the jump to the BC Hockey League next year... He was very close this year with Powell River. I think he made them think twice about what they were doing on the back end."
Stone expects Raffler will get some time with the Kings this season should they need to rely on their affiliated players, noting the defenceman is a reliable contributor.
"He's very steady. He doesn't make any mistakes with the puck," Stone said. "He's a two-way guy, moves (the puck) real well and plays real hard in his own zone."
Raffler ultimately hopes to land an NCAA scholarship and possibly go pro afterward. The other benefit, landing an education, would be a bonus as well. At this point, Raffler would be inclined to take engineering in college.
Meanwhile, the Storm have Welsh's younger brother Nolan as an affiliated player this year.
As well, Stone lauded Grills' demeanour and skill as reasons for his promotion to assistant captain.
"He's got a real good head on his shoulders not just for the game, but for life. What we try to do here is to educate these guys for more than just hockey, and I think Ryan is a perfect example of what we want our young men coming in to look towards," he said.
Elsewhere in the league, Grant Iles has taken over as captain of the Comox Valley Glacier Kings while Evan Horvath will serve as an alternate captain for the Saanich Braves for the second consecutive year.
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