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Future looks bright for the Coquitlam Express, even after playoff loss

The team expects to lose four veterans, but returning youngsters will become a solid core for next year's squad.
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The Coquitlam Express will be looking for its returning players, like Ray Hamlin, to step up their game next season.

The Coquitlam Express didn’t advance past the first round of the BC Hockey League (BCHL) playoffs.

But the team’s general manager says the franchise is well on its way to becoming a template for junior hockey programs.

Tali Campbell said despite the disappointment of losing out to the Chilliwack Chiefs in a closely contested seven game series, the Express has made great strides in cementing its place in the community, and becoming a destination where players want to play and their families want their sons to develop into upstanding young men.

It’s all about creating a holistic environment where everyone feels invested in the team’s success — on and off the ice, Campbell said.

That includes making sure the players have the tools to move forward with their lives when their junior hockey careers are over, fans have a good time at games, sponsors feel like they’re getting good value for their investment and management covers the bills.

Campbell said while there’s still some work to be done on the latter, especially coming off an entire season without ticket revenues plus the added expense of hosting one of the BCHL’s five pods of regional games last spring in an effort to give players some competition in the midst of COVID-19 public health restrictions, progress has been achieved elsewhere.

Sponsorships have increased from 40 to more than 80.

Attendance is up, and a few games through the season even approached the 2,200 capacity at Poirier Sport and Leisure Complex.

And while gate receipts are still shy of the 1,200 average Campbell said is required for a team to be viable in the Lower Mainland, he’s encouraged by some solid numbers even for mid-week games, especially as the Express made its push for a playoff spot in the season’s second half.

As well, he said the team’s email and social media inbox was constantly filled with messages of support, something he rarely saw when he first came aboard in October 2020.

Campbell credited a program supported by Sussex Insurance that gave kids under 18 free admission, as well as promotions like the team’s seven special jersey nights with helping to boost interest.

He said more such events are planned for next season, including a game where the team where its jerseys will be designed by kids, as well as the rink advertising boards.

“We’ve put a good foundation in place,” Campbell said of the Express as a business entity.

Strides have also been made as a hockey club.

Partnerships with minor and female hockey were solidified, with players and coaches visiting practices and conducting camps. Campbell also initiated programs to take care of players’ brain health, as well as their mental and emotional well being.

“It blew my mind how the players responded,” Campbell said of the team bringing in Danny Shepard as its wellness consultant. “The mental health side of things is something that’s very close to my heart.”

Those assurances to families that their sons will be cared for off the ice as much as on it could ultimately give the Express an edge when it comes to recruiting over the league’s more storied franchises that boast facilities like larger arenas and video scoreboards, Campbell added.

“What we have to offer is going to be a lot more unique than what other teams have to offer,” he said. “This is not just about getting players to be better hockey players, but also about getting them to be a better human beings.”

That pitch could get a serious workout this off-season, as Campbell works to fill holes in the Express lineup left by graduating veterans like captain Ryan Tattle, goaltender Carter Woodside and forward Christian McDougall.

Still, Campbell added, the team is left with a solid core of young players ready to take the next step.

They include forwards Ray Hamlin, Tyler Kopff, Jaeger Murdock and Mirko Buttazzoni, as well as defensemen Luke Vardy and Brendan Pentecost.

Veteran Matthew Campbell, who’s a finalist for the BCHL’s best defensemen award, could also return if he chooses to play another season before heading to Quinnipiac University.

Tali Campbell said once a couple of trades involving future considerations that were made in January are concluded after June 1, he’ll have a better idea of the Express’ depth chart and the positions that will have to be filled out through scouting players at identification camps in the summer.

Everyone that comes in though will have to earn their place come training camp in September.

“Nobody has a guaranteed spot on this team,” Campbell said. “We’re going to take the strongest 23 players from the main camp.”