The Spokane Braves expect to be better this year when the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League season opens, but it might be hard to keep things as interesting as they were last year.
Although the Braves stumbled to a 23-26-3 record last season, well behind division-leading Nelson, they were the only team that had much success against a Leafs team that went 42-7-2.
Spokane had three of the wins and both ties and picked up another win in the first round of the playoffs, when Nelson cakewalked to the championship.
“We’ll win more than last year,” coach Mike Bay said. “I think we have a better group for sure. These guys are all excited.”
The Braves will have nine returnees, plus a player from two years ago, when they face Columbia Valley to open the season at Eagles Ice-A-Rena at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
The top returning scorers are Joel Stewart, who had 25 goals and 25 assists for 50 points, and Dylan Tappe, who had 20 goals and 30 assists. Chase Wharton, who contributed 15 goals and 18 assists, returns on defense, in front of veteran goalie Cash Ulrich.
Jesse Collins of Nine Mile Falls, Wash., is going to be one of the two 16-year-olds the team is allowed. Collins was at the recent Spokane Chiefs training camp.
Bay would like to see the rules restored that allow teams to have more than two 16-year-olds.
“It’s Junior B and our goal is to develop guys,” he said. “We want to win, that’s great, but we want to develop young guys.”
He expects Nelson to be the team to beat.
“Nelson is pretty good,” Bay said. “They’re always pretty good. We were the only team to give them competition last year. … (One game) last year there were four Division I college coaches there to watch them. That’s great for our guys, too.”