Trio of Colorado Junior A clubs aiming for WSHL glory
On the eve of the 2015-16 Western States Hockey League (WSHL) season starting, every team is optimistic that all the pieces are in place to make a successful run for the prestigious Thorne Cup.
For the three Colorado-based teams – Colorado Evolution (Denver), Colorado Jr. Eagles (Fort Collins) and Superior RoughRiders (Superior) – each of those squads is brimming with confidence going into their respective season-opening games.
Evolution general manager John Kopperud’s team won just five games in 2014-15 as an expansion franchise, but that record is all in the past, said Kopperud.
“For us, it’s nowhere to go but up,” Kopperud said. “We want to get better every game. We play in a very strong Mountain Division (the team won three games at the 2014 Las Vegas showcase playing out of the division) and we need to learn to compete from the opening faceoff to the final horn. I certainly expect our win-loss record will be much better.”
New coach Bogdan Rudenko, who played 12 seasons of professional hockey, including two stints with the Colorado Gold Kings of the old West Coast Hockey League, will teach a gritty style of play to the Evolution players.
“We will be more hard-nosed this year,” said Kopperud said. “’Rudy’ was a very tough player and our team should pick up on that and play a more physical style. We want to be able to see team improvement on a weekly and monthly basis while getting better every time we touch the ice.”
Forward Nikita Sokov rang up 27 goals in 43 games last year and is always an offensive threat, while forward Kirill Proskurin will also put up decent numbers after being injured much of last year.
Kopperud noted that he expects “big things” from local talent Zach Dym.
“He should have a positive influence,” Kopperud said. “His physical style of play fits perfectly with how Rudy wants things done.”
Steve Haddon, the Jr. Eagles third-year coach, said “the ultimate goal is to bring that Thorne Cup to Northern Colorado.”
Until that potential moment comes later in the season, Haddon said the Jr. Eagles must take their season in steps.
“First, we want to make the playoffs,” said Haddon. “Then second, we want to get home ice for the playoffs and third, we want to make that push for a championship.”
Haddon added that key players for the Jr. Eagles will make up the entire roster.
“We have seven returning players and all of our new players have the same thing in common – they have three or four years of junior hockey experience,” explained Haddon. “We are a veteran team and a physical team that plays a 200-foot game and carries a lot of speed.”
High-end forward Levi Weber (pictured) is one of the seven returnees and is the Jr. Eagles all-time leading scorer.
The RoughRiders come into the season with high expectations, much like the program has for many years.
“We always expect to have a tremendously hard-working team that plays with a lot of speed and physicality,” said Superior coach-GM Paul DePuydt. “Our organization always has the highest expectations for our teams, especially from a development standpoint for all of our players. We expect to excel in our division and throughout the league.”
DePuydt said he is banking on strong seasons from returning defenseman Blake Couture and returning forwards Aidan Doughty and Sage Dugas, in addition to new players Eliot Herz, Pontus Holm, Mans Lindqvist and Kyle Reilly.
“We believe in player development and advancement, first and foremost,” said DePuydt. “Winning is a direct byproduct of the development process, but our season isn’t solely based on wins and losses.”
Over the summer, the WSHL rebranded itself into a Tier II junior program under the Amateur Athletic Union, a step up from its previous Tier III designation.
— Matt Mackinder