The Coquitlam Express have a new coach. But whether Dan Cioffi and his players will have a season to play in has yet to be determined.
Cioffi, whose appointment was announced by the team on Wednesday, is the former head coach of the Valley West Giants major midget team. He’s also the executive director of hockey for the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association.
Cioffi will also be reuniting again with Express president Dave McLellan.
The two were behind the bench for three seasons — McLellan as head coach and Cioffi his assistant — when the team was based in Burnaby and they were co-coaches of the Junior B Delta Ice Hawks when that team won a Pacific Junior Hockey League championship in 2012.
As well, Cioffi served as an associate coach of the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks for several months in 2011.
Fayaz Manji, the owner of the Express, said it’s exciting to be able to move forward even as the team continues to deal with the crushing disappointment of having its aspirations for a BC Hockey League championship cut down by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the ongoing uncertainty of when normal hockey operations can be resumed.
“Dan checked all the boxes we were looking for,” Manji said, adding Cioffi’s deep knowledge of the local hockey scene will facilitate a stronger emphasis on recruiting players closer to home.
In fact, it was Manji’s desire to emphasize local talent that was one of the factors in the Express’ decision to part ways at the end of March with its former head coach of three years, Jason Fortier, who had led the team to its best record ever and a regular season points championship before the plug was pulled on the playoffs on March 13 just before the second round was to begin.
Manji, who acquired the Express last October, said he was fully supportive of Fortier’s skill for attracting top players from across North America to Coquitlam so the current corps could realize their potential as a group, but that sometimes came at the expense of overlooking talent right in the team’s back yard.
“It was a difference in what I considered a more careful review of the local landscape,” he said. “It’s natural a new owner has a certain vision… and there was a slight difference.”
Last Friday, Fortier was announced as the new coach and general manager of the Odessa Jackalopes, a Texas junior team in the North American Hockey League.
Manji said the abrupt end to the hockey season across North America — at every level — has been difficult emotionally and financially.
“It was a crushing blow,” he said. “We recognized early this was an incredible team we had.”
Manji added not only were the players denied their chance to win a league — and possibly Canadian —championship, but many had to disperse quickly back to their hometowns without a proper goodbye when travel restrictions quickly tightened as a way to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Several staff members also had to be let go.
The Express is also on the hook for playoff tickets that were printed but never used, and special merchandise ordered in anticipation of a long and exciting post-season run.
Manji said several camps for U16 and U18 players, potential recruits and goalies, that are revenue generators for the team through the spring and summer months, are also on hold.
Compounding the team’s financial challenges is an apparent crack in federal assistance programs that is making it difficult for the Express to secure an emergency load to cover its expenses until revenue can be generated again.
Manji said several teams across the junior hockey landscape in Canada are facing similar difficulties because staff are considered seasonal contractors, making them ineligible for assistance to cover payroll expenses.
“That’s how the hockey business is run,” Manji said, adding the junior hockey owners and leagues are uniting to make their case to the federal government.
“We just want to make sure we’re not being left behind.”
Manji said the Express remain on solid financial footing, though, even as his own hotel businesses endure hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said some of those losses have been offset by his other business interests in the healthcare industry.
“I’m an optimist by nature,” Manji added. “The key is to hit the ground running when the season starts.”
Although when that may be is still not known, because Hockey Canada has suspended all events it sanctions until July 31, with further updates as the pandemic crisis evolves.