Sunday, April 21, 2024

James Patrick ready to lead the next era of Victoria Royals as head coach

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As of Monday, the Victoria Royals have officially entered a new era.

The team hired new management in the offseason to steer a floundering ship, and they have officially set sail into open waters with their new direction, appointing James Patrick as the new head coach.

If Joey Poljanowski, the Vice President of Hockey Operations, is the one choosing the destination, and Jake Heisinger, the Associate General Manager, is in charge of evaluating talent and assembling the crew, then James Patrick is the captain. He’s the one tasked with steering the vessel on a day-by-day basis.

He’s the man the players will turn to when times are tough, and the one they’ll rely on to guide them through the storm towards the paradise island called a championship.

The Royals are at a fascinating point in their trajectory, with 16-year-old Cole Reschny showcasing unmistakable talent, and the soon-to-be 17-year-old goaltender Jayden Kraus representing an enticing long-term option between the pipes.

Keaton Verhoeff, the Royals’ 4th overall pick from the 2023 Bantam Draft, is performing admirably at the U-18 level despite being just 15 years old. He possesses a rather interesting physical toolkit, already standing at 6’3”. He’s expected to join the team next season.

Victoria also has solid veterans in place, with a group of 18 and 19-year-olds who have been performing well this season. They offer a nice mix of skill and grit. Tanner Scott and Nate Misskey represent the skill side of things, while Justin Kipkie, Austin Zemlak, and Robin Sapousek bring size, grit, and competitiveness to make a meaningful impact.

Promising pieces are in place, but it’s one thing to have young talent; it’s another thing entirely to develop and nurture it into something that can win.

That’s where James Patrick comes in.

Developing talent, improve work ethic, and supporting one another

Patrick was the head coach for the Winnipeg Ice franchise for six years. He took the reins of a struggling team that hit rock bottom, acquired top talent through the draft, and nurtured them into a championship-caliber team.

Although the Ice ultimately fell short of their goal, losing in last year’s final to the Seattle Thunderbirds, Patrick played a pivotal role in transforming a floundering program into an elite one.

Patrick met with the media on Wednesday for an introductory press conference, providing thoughtful answers and fielding questions for around 25 minutes.

When asked about the parallels between leading the Ice from difficulty to success, he responded directly.

“I hope, yes. I have a lot of belief in Jake’s ability to be the best scout possible and to be the best assembler of talent,” he said.

“Getting to know Joey, he and Jake will work hand in hand with that.”

Whenever a new coach is hired in hockey, there’s always talk about improving the culture—discussions revolve around raising standards and establishing a brand of hockey and locker room culture that leads to success.

Patrick has already experienced this in the WHL through his involvement with the Ice franchise.

“Certainly after having been through [a rebuild] once, I feel a lot more confident in it now than when I first went to Cranbrook,” he said.

“You can develop a culture, you can develop a work ethic, you can develop players and get them all united and playing together. There’s a lot you can do in the league.”

That being said, while the coach exerts influence on players and their development, recruiting plays a significant role. Every organization has its hierarchy of values it considers during drafting and recruiting, and what Patrick looks for in his players is quite straightforward.

“I want players who, every day they come to the rink, they’re coming to get better. Players who compete.” He then paused before continuing, realizing he’d already said that all-important word.

“It’s ‘compete’. You can ask some of my former players that if you compete hard you get to play a lot. If you don’t, your ice gets taken away.”

But it’s important to remember that these are teenagers we all love watching play hockey, and there’s far more to development than just stick skills and skating ability. Like any skill or endeavor, there’s your talent and creativity, but there’s also your work ethic, how you carry yourself, and your impact on other people.

“[I want] players who respect people in the community, are involved in the community, and I want players who respect their teammates and work for their teammates.”

While the players themselves hold plenty of responsibility when it comes to elevating the organization, there’s obviously massive responsibility on Patrick. With the Royals having two premier assets in Reschny and Verhoeff, who are 16 and 15-years-old, respectively, Patrick comes to town as the coach who – in a perfect world – leads them through their entire WHL careers.

They’re the two highest picks in Royals history, and it’s imperative they’re developed and brought along correctly. That being said, there’s no favourites, and Patrick sees developing every player as equally important.

“[I view coaching them] the same as any player,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to make them better players. To make them better individual players and better team players.”

While Reschny’s talent is unmistakable, at 16-years-old, there’s a long way to him proving himself as a quality future NHL prospect, and there’s plenty of work to be done to maximize his mouthwatering skillset. Not every top three WHL pick goes on to play in the NHL.

“I know the promise comes with high expectations,” Patrick said. “I look at him like I look at Peyton Krebs (1st in 2016 WHL Draft), Connor McLellan (2nd in 2017), Conor Geekie (2nd in 2019), Matt Savoie (1st in 2019), and Zach Benson (14th in 2020).”

Krebs has already played 148 NHL games with Buffalo and Vegas, while Geekie, Savoie, and Benson are all top prospects with their NHL organizations.

“Coming into this league he (Reschny) carries the same credentials, and he’s showed early on that that’s deservedly so.”

“I think he’s got a great future, I think he’s got a lot of work ahead of him, and I’m super excited when he gets back here to start working with him.”

North-south hockey and holding onto pucks

After hiring new a new head coach, teams often experience a “new coach bump”, where players get a new start and are highly motivated to battle, earn ice time, and impress the new guy in charge.

It’s like springtime – the air is fresh with opportunity and ripe for growth.

And no one’s in the doghouse. Yet, anyways.

But the other side of a new coach coming to town is getting to understand their philosophies and playing style – what they think is essential to maximizing talent and playing a winning brand of hockey.

“I’d like to get us into that mindset of playing that north-south game. I’m not big on bringing pucks back,” Patrick said.

Every coach says they want to play the game ‘quick’. Well, what does that mean? Move the puck quick and play north, don’t bring pucks back and don’t slow down the game.”

If all goes to plan, Victoria will be playing a tenacious, puck-hounding style that doesn’t give the opposition time to breathe. It’s easy to see the Royals’ top line playing well to that identity, given the speed of Tanner Scott, the tenacity of Robin Sapousek, and the size/skill combo of Reggie Newman.

They’ve been carrying the banner for the Royals when it comes to compete and consistency, and that shouldn’t be any different under Patrick. If that’s the style he wants, he’s got a great line to demonstrate it.

That being said, there’s always room for improvement.

“From Tuesday’s game, there were times where I thought [the team] could hold onto pucks. Hold on, make it hard for them to take it off of you, even if you don’t have a play.”

The best hockey teams come in waves, sending line after line out that continues to harass and harry the opposition into mistakes, indecision, and turnovers. Eventually the opponents feel the pressure. Maybe even get a little nervous.

And there’s nothing more confidence-inducing to watch as a fan than a team that consistently wins 50-50 battles and comes up with the puck. It’s even more inspiring when a team can chip a puck in and, even though the opposition has some time to retrieve it, a strong forecheck still muddies the play up and produces a chance to extend the play.

“You have to win battles, you have to be strong on the puck,” Patrick said. “I want us to learn to get stronger on the puck, certainly in the offensive zone. When you can come up winning battles and you can spread the ice out, that’s how you can start creating some offense.”

And if you lose the puck?

It comes back to that all-important word.

Compete.

Watch Patrick’s coaching debut Friday night

James Patrick will make his debut as the new head coach Friday night as the Royals take on the Seattle Thunderbirds, when they will also be celebrating Canadian Armed Forces Appreciation Night at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.

Puck drop is at 7:05 p.m. and tickets are still available.

Catch the Victoria Royals this November

The Royals have plenty of home games this November if you want to check the squad out.

The November home schedule is as follows:

  • Friday, November 10th vs Seattle Thunderbirds (Canadian Armed Forces Appreciation Night), 7:05 p.m.
  • Monday, November 13th vs Kelowna Rockets (Skate with the Players to follow), 3:05 p.m.
  • Tuesday, November 14th vs Kelowna Rockets (Value Weekday), 7:05 p.m.
  • Friday, November 17th vs Lethbridge Hurricanes (Pet Appreciation Night), 7:05 p.m.
  • Tuesday, November 28th vs Kamloops Blazers (Value Weekday), 7:05 p.m.
  • Wednesday, November 29th vs Kamloops Blazers (Value Weekday), 7:05 p.m.

The Victoria Royals’ home schedule is a little more sparse in December, with just three home games throughout the entire month – the first being December 15th.

That means the time is now to catch the “new” Royals, who are 9-3-0-1 in their past 13 games.

Jeremy Weeres
Jeremy Weeres
Victoria Royals and hockey writer at Victoria Buzz

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