When reached by phone a day before his first preseason game, West Kelowna Warriors head coach Brandon West was helping put the final touches on a makeover of the team’s dressing room.
Given how last season went — with three abrupt coaching changes, a first-round playoff exit and some off-ice distractions — changing the optics would seem like a good move.
“Just a fresh look,” said West, who is also the club’s general manager. “That’s what I was looking for.”
The reno may also help West put his stamp on this team.
He’s about to embark on his first full season behind the Warriors’ bench after taking over Jan. 28 from the fired Geoff Grimwood.
Warriors owner Kim Dobranski actually fired Grimwood in preseason, but the players revolted and the BCHL head office intervened and got him his job back — until Jan. 28 at least.
That’s when West stepped into what was likely a tense situation. But the man who brings coaching experience from the Penticton Vees, Surrey Eagles and Salmon Arm Silverbacks seems undaunted.
He appeared eager — although a bit exhausted, as you can imagine running a junior-A hockey team — as the Warriors started the preseason Wednesday night.
“We want to make sure we give everybody a fair opportunity to compete for jobs,” said West. “The message was sent Monday morning at our camp orientation is that nothing is going to be given, and everything is going to be earned.”
A Warriors team heavy on rookies hosted the Penticton Vees newcomers on Wednesday night at Royal LePage Place to begin the preseason. A score was not available before press time, but that’s not really a surprise.
The game was as close to a controlled scrimmage as you can get.
It was an opportunity to give the freshman class some ice time, but it’s so early in the process of icing a new team that West wasn’t putting much weight on the tilt.
The Warriors only just started preseason camp on Monday, and don’t play a regular season game until Sept. 6.
When they do begin, the Warriors will have a very different feel from the team that lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Wenatchee Wild in March.
A modest 10 veterans are returning to the Warriors this season, including Parm Dhaliwal and Lucas Cullen. The forwards were fourth and fifth last season in team scoring.
West Kelowna’s Jake Harrison, who helped the Warriors win the 2016 Canadian junior-A championship, is back after spending a season with the Fargo Force of the U.S. Hockey League.
“There’s not a better guy that I can think of to lead this group in the direction we want to go,” said West.
The defenceman was named the Warriors new captain, with Dhaliwal and Cullen assistants. West said he’s confident in his core of three 20-year-old veterans leading the Warriors. Now, he needs to build around them.
“We want to give them an opportunity to get off on the right start again,” West said, “and we believe we have some guys here ready to take that challenge.”
Among the newcomers who could accept that mission is a pair of Delta Academy rookies. West considers Nick Ardanaz and John Evans among the top 17-year-old players coming into the league.
Adanaz, a five-foot-eight, 180-pound defenceman, has already earned a scholarship to University of New Hampshire in 2021. He scored at nearly a point per game last season in the Canadian School Sports Hockey League.
Evans led the Delta Wild in that department. The forward scored 20 goals and 52 assists in 35 games.
“John and I have played with each other for as long as I remember,” Ardanaz said earlier this summer after signing with West Kelowna. “It will be great to play out our first years of junior together on the same team. John’s a great player and a better teammate.”
Beyond that, however, there will be few guarantees for West and new assistant coach Ayrton Nikkel.
Included in that is the goaltender position.
Brock Baier, who went 12-9 last season with a 4.21 goals-against average and a .893 save percentage, has returned. He’ll likely compete for the starting job with rookie Evan Fradette, 18.
He’s coming off an MVP season with the midget triple-A St. Albert Raiders, who also won the uber-competitive Macs Midget Triple-A Tournament in Calgary last Christmas.
West, however, isn’t worrying about anything that happened before this season.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or you’re 20, if you’re five-five or six-five,” he said, “if you bring something to the table and you give us your best, you’ll have an opportunity.”