The story of the 2017-2018 Vancouver Junior Rangers sounds as if it were plucked from the pages of a Hollywood script.
The 2016-2017 hockey season ends. The owners of the local ice arena decide they want to close it down in order to build a school on the site. In the meantime, the owners of the hockey team decide not to wait around, leaving town. Local players from the previous season’s hockey team wait as long as possible, but with uncertainty hanging over their heads, one by one they move on to different teams to continue their careers.
A core group of players and parents, however, hang in hopes that they can stay together as a team. Finally, at the last minute, the arena owners decide they’ll keep it open at least another year. The hockey group is excited, until they realize they’ll have to scramble to form a team in time for the new season to begin.
Their first task – finding a coach for the team. Next up – signing players to their merry band, with only the promise of plentiful ice time with this motley crew. Slowly but surely, the team comes together, and by the end of the season, they hoist the championship trophy as the arena owners find the coach and tell him not to worry – the arena will stand forever.
FADE TO BLACK! ROLL CREDITS …
The real story follows much of that script – although the happy ending? That remains to be seen.
The Vancouver Rangers played in the Northwest Division of the Western States Hockey League for the 2016-2017 season, finishing in fourth place. After the season, the uncertainty over the Mountain View Ice Arena’s future led the team to relocate to Bremerton and assume the identity of the dormant West Sound Warriors.
At one time, Mountain View Ice Arena housed two NHL-sized ice rinks, but after it was sold in 2006, one of the rinks was removed and converted into an auditorium for Portland-based City Bible Church.
In 2016, the church announced plans to convert the second rink into space for an elementary school and gymnasium. It looked as if these plans may come to fruition last summer, and with the possibility that their home ice would be gone soon, many of the players on the 2016-17 team moved on – some to the Portland Junior Winterhawks, others scattered to teams in the WSHL or Pacific Northwest Amateur Hockey Association.
A core group of players, though, who’d played for the Rangers’ U18 development team waited and hoped.
Scott Meyers, a team manager and father to forward Weston Meyers, summed up everyone’s feelings, “These kids just want to come together and play.”
Finally, in August came word from the church that the rink would be allowed to stay for at least one more winter. The uncertainty vanished, but the fact remained – the Rangers had no coach and barely enough players for one shift on the ice, much less 60 minutes of action.
Enter Austin Coldwell. A Vancouver native who graduated from Skyview High School in 2008 before playing at the University of Alaska-Anchorage and professionally in the Minnesota Wild organization, the 28-year-old joined the Rangers program in September 2016 as an assistant coach for the bantam team. When the chance to become Coaching Director came up, he jumped head-first into the role.
“I want to see hockey programs succeed here,” Coldwell said. “I want to create a hockey hotbed in Vancouver. This is step one.”
Step two was filling out the roster. With most players already having signed with other teams, the Rangers put out a casting call worthy of a Hollywood movie set.
“I knew one or two people on the team,” said Coby Bruton, one of the few returning players from last year’s team. “Everyone else was new.”
One of the newcomers was team captain Randy Yeakley, an Evergreen senior who also pitches for the Plainsmen baseball team. A year ago, Yeakley played for the Junior Winterhawks team that won the USA Hockey Youth Tier II 16U National Championships in Frisco, Texas.
But board changes in the Junior Winterhawks program, combined with a desire to stay close to home for his senior season, brought him into the Rangers’ fold.
“My dad has played in leagues at this rink since we moved here in 2002,” Yeakley said. “I lived at this rink. They knew me as Ralph Junior.”
Cameron Birchill, the team’s number one goaltender, also came over from Portland and has faced 50- and 60-shot barrages seemingly every game yet has posted an .870 save percentage and impressed opposing coaches with his play.
Then there’s Grant Hanifen, an Anchorage native who played for an Alaskan 14U Tier II all-star team. He attended a hockey camp in Penticton in 2016 and was offered a tryout with the Junior Winterhawks, as well as the opportunity to attend Park Academy in Lake Oswego, a school specifically designed for students with dyslexia.
Hanifen also left the Junior Winterhawks following the board changes, and he’s now a 15-year-old playing in a U18 league. He’s not alone – the Rangers have four 15-year-olds and five 16-year-olds on their roster.
“We’re doing the best we can to keep it going, even with these question marks hanging over us,” Coldwell said. “We only have three kids who’ve played at the Tier II level before this year. That’s a steep learning curve there.”
“A lot of these guys were cut from their U18, their U16 teams. They didn’t want to play house hockey. This is the last stop for some of these guys. Others still want to develop their game.”
Yeakley, the team’s captain and leading scorer with 15 goals and 6 assists through 16 games, laughs at the comparison to The Mighty Ducks of movie fame. It leads him to recalling the team’s photo session. Three players who appear in the official photo no longer practice with the team. One showed up just for the practice that coincided with photo day and hasn’t been back since.
As you can imagine, all this roster churn has taken a toll on the team’s win-loss record. Following a 3-0 home loss to Tacoma on January 20, the Rangers are last in the PNAHA 18U Tier 2 standings with a 1-14-2 record, good for just four points.
“Yeah, it sucks to lose a lot of games, but it’s still been a lot of fun,” Bruton said. “We went on a couple of long road trips, and we have gotten to know each other.”
The Rangers also have fared better during the frequent tournaments they participate in, posting wins over Tacoma, Wenatchee and Eugene. They still have four league games remaining, including two against a Spokane team that boasts just two league wins, and there’s the season-ending PNAHA state tournament March 2-4 in the Tri-Cities.
As for next season, the parents and players don’t hold out much hope.
“No one is stepping up to say they will build another rink in Vancouver,” said Coby’s mother, Amy Bruton, another of the team managers. “I don’t think the owners realize how important this rink is to the community. You have hockey, sled hockey, figure skaters – there is so much that this community would lose.”
So, can the Rangers hoist the state championship trophy and give this story its happy ending?
If we’ve learned anything from Hollywood, don’t bet against the Mighty Du…errr…the Rangers!