It’s been a tale of two seasons thus far for the Victoria Royals, with a challenging start to the season coupled with a few tough, early road trips.
But they’ve come a long way since their 3-10-2-0 start to the season, rattling off 8 wins over their past 14 games, having put the finishing touches on a roster that has been in flux all season.
At the center of that is Jake Poole, a 6’2 goal scoring winger who’s smashed through his career highs already this season, and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. If anything, he’s speeding up.
Acquired in early October from the Kelowna Rockets, the overaged winger has been as consistent as he has been lethal, leading the team in scoring with 25 goals and 26 assists for 51 points – 18 more than his next teammate.
He was given an opportunity early, and he’s never looked back.
“The staff really trusts me when I’m out on the ice and you keep getting confidence from that,” Poole tells Victoria Buzz.
Though it’s taken some time for the Royals to get their feet on the ground, the late-November return of last year’s second highest goal scorer Brayden Schuurman and captain Gannon Laroque’s recent season debut has provided a much needed jolt.
Combined with the additions of Czech import Robin Sapousek and the trade for goaltender Braden Holt (who is quietly 6-1-1) before the New Year, and it seems that the team may have turned a corner.
The settling of the roster helped the team not only make improvements, but also find some consistency and, coupled with a few wins, have improved the vibe around the squad.
“[The vibe] is a lot better now I think, everyone’s a bit more relaxed and not on edge,” Poole said. “We had a lot of movement as well and a lot trades, guys moving in and out. But now that our team is set, everyone’s pretty confident.”
Teams can also gain subtle improvements from the bond between players and familiarity among friends growing. These kids spend a ton of time together, and when you go on road trips out east for three weeks and have a hard time finding wins, it helps when bonds are strong.
“We’re playing cards, some of us play games like Among Us, chess too,” he said. “Everyone’s gotten a lot closer, and with the couple wins we’ve been getting as well, it’s made it nicer in the room.”
Players and staff can put on a brave face through tough stretches, but there’s no doubt that losing takes its toll.
“It’s still enjoyable every day you get to come to the rink and play junior hockey,” he said. “[But] when you’re not winning it’s tougher on each player and the organization.”
Say all you want about playing for the joy or the love of the game, winning certainly makes it more fun.
So does scoring. And scoring lots.
Poole has been on an absolute tear of late, no doubt a huge part of the Royals’ renaissance. He’s buried 9 goals and 23 points over his last 14 games, and had a recent 7 game streak from January 7th to January 21st where he scored at least 2 points in every game.
The multi-point streak ended when he scored merely one goal this past Sunday in his final game against his former Rockets.
Certainly his own growth as a player contributes to the demolition of his career highs, but no one is surprised to find that secret stuff called “confidence” as the usual suspect to a breakout offensive season.
“Most of it has to do with confidence,” he said. “Being more confident and making plays, more willing to shoot the puck and not being scared of turning over the puck and making mistakes.”
Poole has tallied 25 goals and 51 points, good for 14th in the league for goals and 21st for points, and has already blown by his previous career bests of 14 goals and 32 points set last year with Kelowna in 48 games.
He’s been trusted by head coach and general manager Dan Price from day one, and Poole has just kept getting better, nearly doubling his career WHL goal total this season with over 20 games remaining.
“I’m using my shot more too,” he explained. “Beforehand I was always a pass first guy, and now I’m starting to shoot it a bit more and it seems to be working, so I’ll keep sticking with that.”
Given the nature of being an overager in the WHL – teams are only allowed to dress three overaged players each night – perspective and opportunity go hand-in-hand. Most players’ major junior careers end after their 19 year old season. But Poole’s been able to keep the train rolling.
Though it was hard to be traded from Kelowna – the only WHL experience he’d known – it also makes you appreciate the opportunity to you have.
“I wasn’t really ready for [the trade] but kind of knew it was coming,” he said. “But I heard great things about this place and it’s all been true. The guys have been great here and it’s been such a great fit for me.”
Has it ever.
Poole is interested in trying to carve out a pro hockey career once his final junior season is complete, but he’s fully aware of the challenges ahead. Like many WHL players, if the pro hockey route doesn’t pan out, there’s a college scholarship waiting in the wings.
“I just take it day by day,” he said. “I try to leave everything out there, don’t leave anything up to chance.”
It’s been a long journey for the native of McAuley, Manitoba, a small farming community west of Brandon, where he remembers current Vegas Golden Knight, Mark Stone, dominating the circuit with the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Poole reflected fondly on leaving home when he was 16 to first play for the Rockets.
“Honestly I was ready for it,” he said. “I wanted to move out and get the junior hockey experience.”
Though there were some tough times adjusting to new surroundings and being a few provinces away from your friends and family, you can tell just from talking to him that the entire major junior experience has been a blast.
“The first year was a little tough missing friends and family,” he recalled. “But you get closer with the guys that you see every day and obviously the billets and other people in the city, it was an easy transition for me.”
Sounds just like his transition to the Royals and the city of Victoria.
It’s been smooth, to say the least.
As for his nickname around the team?
It has the same level of creativity as most hockey nicknames.
We’ll see if Pooley can find the net for the 4th straight game this weekend against Kamloops.
Puck drop is at 7:05 p.m. this Friday and 6:05 p.m. Saturday at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre this weekend, and you can grab your tickets here.