Vancouver Giants aim for one giant leap in 2004-05

Originally published in Prospects Hockey in 2004

By Lucas Aykroyd

The current National Hockey League lockout doesn’t have many upsides to it. Here in Vancouver, whether you’re a Canucks season ticket holder or a fan who usually catches the games at the local pub, an employee at GM Place or a member of the media who normally follows the quest for the Stanley Cup, everyone’s got something to complain about.

That is, unless you happen to be the Vancouver Giants. While naturally the success of the Canucks produces a positive overall spinoff effect for the Giants, the local Western Hockey League outfit definitely stands to benefit from the work stoppage in the short term. Many local hockey fans are spending their NHL bucks on major junior for a change.

An impressive attendance of 8,864 at the September 25 home opener versus the Portland Winter Hawks certainly gave an idea of how much potential exists here. But in a big city with as many diversions as Vancouver offers, the Giants will need to maintain a winning pace to keep filling the Pacific Coliseum.

At least on paper, the G-Men have assembled their most talented roster ever in the club’s four-year history. And eager fans want this team to “shoot for the moon” by seriously contending for a Memorial Cup title. If they succeed, it would mark the first time the gleaming symbol of Canadian junior hockey supremacy has returned to the Lower Mainland since the now-defunct New Westminster Bruins battled their way to consecutive championships in 1977 and 1978.

“The Giants have a great opportunity to win their division and yes, even a realistic shot at going to the Memorial Cup,” Shane Malloy of said. “If things come together and their younger players blossom, they could give a team like the London Knights a run for their money.”

A high-powered offense is never a bad starting point, and no Vancouver forward has received more praise and scrutiny than Gilbert Brule, who racked up 60 points in 2003-04 en route to WHL Rookie of the Year honors. “We had Scott Gomez when I was in Tri-Cities, and his career speaks for itself,” said Vancouver GM Scott Bonner. “Gilbert was as good at 16 as Scott was at 18.” The feisty center has also been likened to such NHL standouts as Steve Yzerman, Brendan Morrison, and Darcy Tucker.

This isn’t the first time Brule’s stepped in and dominated offensively. He racked up 32 goals and 25 assists with the BCHL’s Quesnel Millionaires in 2002-03. Previously, his 152 points with the North Shore Winter Hawks prompted the Giants to take him first overall in the 2002 WHL Bantam Draft.

Keeping his head up, Brule stickhandles and passes the puck with the poise of a much older player. His finesse skills are especially visible when he’s making beautiful set-ups on the power play. “When I’m able to feed Adam Courchaine, he usually buries the puck, so it’s pretty nice to be passing to a guy like that,” said Brule of his 20-year-old teammate, who could also contend for the WHL scoring crown this season.

If Brule really rockets into orbit as a sophomore, we may see him representing Canada at the 2005 IIHF World Junior Championship in Grand Forks, North Dakota and becoming a top-three pick at the NHL Draft in June. Other notable forwards include hard-working scorer Mitch Bartley, tough veteran Triston Grant, and the improving Tim Kraus.

On the blueline, the Giants are blessed with two towers of power. Captain Mark Fistric is a perfect example of growing with an organization, as the 6-2, 232-pound defenseman has played with Vancouver since its inaugural 2001-02 campaign. Thanks to his tireless effort and bruising physical presence, Fistric was drafted 28th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2004. Provided he fully recovers from a broken jaw suffered early in the season, he should continue to impress.

Andrej Meszaros brings a special pedigree to his WHL rookie campaign. The strong-skating Slovak blueliner played for his native country at the 2004 IIHF World Championships in Prague, an amazing achievement for an 18-year-old up against many top NHL stars.

“The WHL is hard for me too, but not as hard,” said Meszaros, a graduate of Dukla Trencin. “It’s a different style. It’s more physical, up and down hockey.” The first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators has logged a ton of ice time in the early part of the season in all situations, showing how much confidence the coaches have in him. And he’s fallen in love with Vancouver too: “The ocean and the mountains are unbelievable. I think it’s one of the nicest places in the world.”

Vancouver’s other European import, Marek Schwarz, could have an even greater impact. Goaltending will be key to the Giants’ championship hopes, and this 18-year-old Czech has both the lateral quickness and overall technical ability that mark a great butterfly netminder.

“Schwarz has been unbelievable,” said Grant. “It’s a real honor to play with a world-class goalie. He works hard in practice and in the games.” As long as Schwarz can adapt to the smaller North American ice surface, he’ll carry his team safely through many opposition barrages.

If new head coach Don Hay has his way, the Giants will achieve the same balance between offense and defense as the Kamloops Blazers of the mid-1990’s, who captured two Memorial Cups under Hay’s tutelage. While the Giants did make progress with Dean Evason behind the bench the last two seasons, management felt Hay was more of a can’t-miss proposition. The 50-year-old was voted the WHL’s best coach of all time in 1999, and also guided Team Canada to a gold medal at the 1995 World Juniors.

Hay is quick to caution against overconfidence, considering Vancouver is up against perennial WHL contenders like the Kootenay Ice and Medicine Hat Tigers: “When you’re playing against well-coached teams, you can’t do anything that’s going to give them the advantage on you. You’ve got to keep playing smart hockey and playing together.”

And if the Giants gel? “The sky’s the limit,” said Grant. Yes, a playoff run toward the Memorial Cup could see the Pacific Coliseum rocking like it hasn’t since the Canucks stormed to the Stanley Cup finals in 1994. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

Leave a Reply