There will be more than just a national title on the line for Surrey Eagles head coach Matt Erhart at the RBC Cup this week.
The 34-year-old Delta, B.C., native will be aiming to become the first person ever to win Canada’s National Junior A Championship as both a player and as a coach.
Erhart was a rookie defenceman with the Eagles during the team’s first championship run in 1998, when Surrey cruised to an RBC Cup title, defeating Saskatchewan’s Weyburn Red Wings in the final.
“We had a really special team that year,” Erhart recalled.
“I was only a rookie, so I didn’t have the hugest role, per se. But I remember we got off to a great start and just kind of cruised from there. And in a short-term tournament, that’s huge.
“We felt comfortable and confident – I think we were 5-0 in the tournament and then won in the final 4-1.”
Good memories aside, Erhart said he hasn’t given much thought to what it would mean to win a national title both on the ice and behind the bench.
Regardless of whether he makes history with an Eagles’ championship in P.E.I., Erhart has already become just the second person in BCHL history to win a B.C. title as both player and coach, with the other being Ernie Gare Jr.
“We don’t have 100 per cent for a lot of the league’s early years, but we feel it’s pretty safe to say these are the only two,” said BCHL communications director Brent Mutis.
Gare won a B.C. Junior Hockey League title with the Vernon Essos in the early 1970s, then won again with the Vernon Lakers in the mid-’80s as a coach.
“I don’t think about it much, to be honest,” said Erhart, who is the only member of the Eagles with Royal Bank Cup experience.
“It’s so different now – that (win) was 15 years ago now, so maybe I’d feel differently if I was a younger coach, and I’d just won (as a player) maybe five years ago or something.”
At first glance, the 1998 cup-winning team and this year’s Eagles squad bear a few obvious similarities – especially scoring depth. The ‘98 club was led by high-scoring forwards John McNab and Mike Bishai, with a handful of others chipping in. The team also had a trio of high-scoring defencemen, including Jakub Ficenec – who had 91 points in 55 regular-season games that year – and Joe Vandermeer.
The current flock of Eagles, meanwhile, has scores of offense, from Brady Shaw and Adam Tambellini, to Michael Stenerson and Drew Best. On the blue line, Craig Wyszomirski and Western Canada Cup MVP Devon Toews also chip in offensively.
However, where Erhart – who had 11 points in 57 games in 1998 – sees one difference between the teams is on the birth certificates of the players. Where the 1998 team – and most championship-winning teams, really – was an older group, this year’s Birds will enter the RBC Cup as the youngest team in the tournament, with just three 20-year-olds (a fourth, defenceman Troy Paterson, has been injured most of the season).
“We’re a younger team, but we still have great leadership from our captain on down,” Erhart said. “We might not have a lot of 20-year-olds, but we’ve got guys like Colton Mackie and Michael Stenerson, who’ve been here awhile and have a lot of experience.”
He also doesn’t view his younger players as typical rookies, either.
“Our young guys are pretty mature. (Demico) Hannoun, (Jordan) Klimek and (Kevan) Kilistoff, they all play big roles for us, so I don’t worry about them getting rattled at a big tournament like this,” Erhart said.
“Everyone will probably be a little nervous to start with, but we’ve done a good job all year of channeling that the right way.”
And though he’ll be the only one in the dressing room with tournament experience, Erhart said he doesn’t plan to impart much wisdom on his team from his own experiences.
“I don’t think I’ll have to. This tournament should be pretty self-motivating,” he said.
“When we won it, it was just one of those years, one of those teams. We just got on a roll and just never stopped.”