METRO VANCOUVER - Like a freight train, the Coquitlam Express are running down the track in junior A hockey and hoping to capture another national championship.
The Express were based in Burnaby in 2005-06 when they last won the RBC Cup. Among their players was a 16-year-old named Kyle Turris and another forward, Mark Santorelli, who two years later became the Western Hockey League's scoring champion.
Express president Darcy Rota isn't certain whether this season's team, which won the BCHL’s Fred Page Cup April 15 in a sweep of the Vernon Vipers, will repeat the heroics of the '05-06 squad but he does see some similarities.
“There are quite a few actually,” Rota, the former NHL star, said Wednesday. “The 2005-06 team was eighth overall and we were ninth overall. We had to win games on the road in the playoffs back then, like we did this year. The character on both teams has been really good. This year, we came back in every game against Vernon. The first three games we fell behind 3-0, 2-0 and 2-0 and, in Game 4, we were behind 3-2 after two periods before coming back with two in the third. This team would not be denied.”
The Express leave Thursday for Dauphin, Man., and the next phase of their journey. As BCHL champs, they'll be involved in a five-team, week-long Western Canada Cup tournament in which two clubs will earn berths in the 2014 RBC Cup, to be held next month in Vernon. Coquitlam opens round-robin play Sunday against the Alberta champion Spruce Grove Saints.
The top four clubs in the round-robin will then advance to a playoff round with one meeting two and three meeting four. The winner of the one-versus-two game will earn the first RBC spot. The loser of one-versus-two will meet the winner of three-versus-four for the second berth. This is the second year this format has been used to qualify teams for the RBC Cup.
“It will be tough,” conceded Rota. “I like the format and think it will be good for us. But it will be tough.”
Rota sensed the Express had a chance at this year’s BCHL title when they sawed off their regular-season series with the powerhouse Langley Rivermen. They could score – they led the 16-team league with 226 goals – but also surrendered 226, third worst. Then goalie Gordie Defiel, a 20-year-old from Stillwater, Minn., caught fire.
“Gordie had a year that was kind of so-so but, in the playoffs, he has been just superb,” explained Rota. “He got hot.”
The 2013-14 Express, coached by Barry Wolff, have an interesting mix of local players and Americans. There are 12 from the Lower Mainland – four from Coquitlam itself – and seven U.S. imports.
Team captain Ryan Rosenthal hails from Montvale, N.J., and leads the Express in playoff scoring with 22 points in 19 games. Four players are from Minnesota and two from Pennsylvania. Among the homegrown notables are Delta native and defenceman Zach Hodder, once a first-round bantam pick of the WHL's Vancouver Giants, and forward Adam Rockwood, a Coquitlam product who collected 74 points in the regular season and has added 20 more in the playoffs. He is headed to the NCAA Wisconsin Badgers.
“What I'm really happy for is the attention that city of Coquitlam and the name Coquitlam is going to get on the national hockey front,” Rota said. “I'm also very happy for Barry Wolff. He has been knocking on the door for a long time and has done a great job this year. You can see the players just love playing for him.”
The other teams competing at the Western Canada Cup tournament are the Winnipeg Blues, Yorkton Terriers and host Dauphin Kings.
Meanwhile, on the major junior front, Vancouver Canuck prospects Brendan Gaunce, Dane Fox, Anton Cederholm and Miles Liberati are still alive in their respective league playoffs. Gaunce and Fox, both of the Erie Otters, are down 3-1 to the Guelph Storm. Game 5 in that OHL series goes Friday. Cederholm, a stay-at-home defenceman with the Portland Winterhawks, is in the midst of the WHL's Western Conference final with the Kelowna Rockets. Portland leads the series 3-1 after taking Game 4 by a 5-1 count Wednesday night.
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