Vancouver Giants: Building a Winner

By Dave Donnelly

A few hours before the Vancouver Giants began their third pre-season game out at Queen’s Park Arena in New Westminster, I spoke with Scott Bonner, GM, about the organizational plans for the newest team to enter the WHL. A laid-back gentleman, Bonner was warm and relaxed but at the same time candid, and left me with the impression that he was pulling together a wealth of hockey knowledge that had worked collaboratively in formulating a solid game-plan for the full development of the club.

The first order of business for these Giants under Bonner’s tutelage was to put an entertaining product on the ice. He pared it down to bringing together a close-knit group of young players—no bad apples need apply—that realized they are privileged to be playing in the best under-20 league in the world, and who are going to buy into Head Coach Milan Dragicevic’s proven approach: hard work every night.

If the first local pre-season game held earlier in the week at the South Surrey Arena against the Kamloops Blazers—one that they won 6-5 with 16 seconds remaining in OT—is any indication of what is in store for the fans, the Giants will indeed satiate all appetites for some earnest, never-say-die hockey.

Hard work is always appreciated from a fans’ point of view, yet it brings its own rewards—actual on-ice success. Considering that Bonner is himself a long-time fan of both the Oilers and the Flyers, it’s easy to understand the type of team he hopes to assemble: fast, skilled and with an edge. At this juncture, Bonner believes that he may already have the right blend of players needed to challenge for a playoff spot, having five proven WHL performers to lead the charge, with both Captain Nick Marach (81) and their seasoned ex-Regina Pats netminder, Donald Choukalos (81), to bookend the squad.

Although there are no proven super-star snipers on the team, Bonner is looking for a half-dozen or so players to contribute offensively, and a few tough-nosed players to keep their opponents honest.

The Giants have a blend of experience and age to complement their up-and-comers, and Bonner has clearly thought out a sound gameplan as far as keeping the team headed in the right direction over the next few seasons. Along with a line and a half of proven WHL talent, on defense the Giants are looking to lose only one player—Jeff Beatch (81)—next year through attrition, and only one player—David Selthun (82)—the year following. This means that in three seasons their defensive corps should be reasonably well experienced and extremely comfortable playing together as a cohesive team. This framework fits well with the GM’s idea that a team should be built from the defense, and ultimately goal, outwards. With youngsters such as Mark Ashton (85) and Kieran Block (85) seeing some ice this year, and the very impressive Mark Fistric (86) soon to be brought into the fold of things, Bonner has ensured that the Giants are only going to improve as the next few seasons progress.

When Scott Bonner accepted the position of GM by signing a five-year contract, he felt his long-term objectives would not be handcuffed by a change in leadership mid-stride. Knowing full well that there is a four-year shelf life, at best, for any WHL team, the Giants’ GM is operating under the premise that the Bantam draft is paramount, and will ‘make or break’ his club. This philosophical approach has been proven to work for both the Calgary Hitmen and the now Kootenay Ice, so Bonner’s goal is to duplicate their on-ice success here in Vancouver.

With considerable scouting expertise himself, having previously ‘discovered’ talents such as Scott Gomez, Daymond Langkow, Sheldon Souray and Brian Boucher to name a few, look for Bonner to lead the Giants in this area quite successfully in the future. Plus with 20 scouts working with the Giants, covering areas from Manitoba to California and most areas in-between, the organization seems to be of the mind that no rock should go unturned. Watch out kids, this means there is a Giants’ Scout in an arena near you.

Not only are the scouts out in full force, but the Giants intend on being active in the community. Already they have the local district hockey clubs involved with the 50/50 draw at the pre-season games, and more involvement is on its way. Pancake breakfasts, participation in the local Chambers’ of Commerce and Rotary Club meetings, and with the players volunteering their time and expertise at the minor league level via guest appearances at practices. Through direct interaction with the Lower Mainland residents at both the organizational and player levels, it appears that the Giants hope to be a benefit to the area beyond the entertainment level.

Already the club has been conducting practices and pre-season games at various local rinks, and this seems to be having the effect of rallying the fans that are anxious to reclaim involvement in some good old Canadian hockey; hockey where the passions are overflowing, not the pocketbooks of the players. With decent season’s ticket sales, estimated at 2800 of 7000 seats at the Pacific Coliseum, and a long-term plan for success in place centred around entertainment and hard work, it is easy to imagine the family-friendly, affordable tickets for the Giants becoming a very hot commodity.