Young faces provide plenty of hope for jr. Lakers

Change is the word for the Burnaby junior Lakers.

Although a flotilla of new faces is nothing new as a new season approaches, the pedigree of those in charge gives hope to the idea of a resurgence on the B.C. Junior A Lacrosse League charts.

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Spring is the time, after all, for eternal optimism.

With the likes of Russ Heard, Chris Levis and Tyler Kirkby stepping behind the bench, elite experience isn’t a question. From Heard’s perspective, rolling up the sleeves and getting down to work is a big part of restoring the Lakers’ once illustrious reputation.

“As we told the guys in training camp, Burnaby hasn’t won a lot of games in recent years, so the first thing we’re going to do is try to instill a strong, cohesive culture,” said Heard, whose number as a junior Laker is retired in the Copeland Sports Centre’s rafters.

“We only have nine returning players so a majority of the players are new, to the Lakers and to junior A. There’s a learning curve there.”

A lot of last year’s leaders were either dealt or have graduated from the junior A circuit. General manager Brad Parker swung a lot of trades, both at last season’s deadline as well as in January, to build a speedy, talented roster.

The names are plentiful – first-overall midget draft pick Sam LaRoue, his older brother Butch, Liam Birch, Kyle Hooper, Addison Greffard – but not all of them will be making the big leap to junior A. In that vein, Parker said that establishing a successful team at the top level requires success at the feeder teams, too.

“I’m really happy with what we’ve seen in training camp, and I think this is the best camp we’ve had in a long time,” said Parker.

He also pointed to Burnaby's midget program, which is currently in the upswing, as a future provider of talent for the junior ranks.

Young players are the wave of the future as the organization moves into Year 2 of the five-year junior format.

Improving on a 2-18-1 record shouldn’t be too daunting, but in a league where most year’s it’s a two- or three-horse race, the obstacles are many. Give Heard and Parker credit for tackling the big problems head-on.

The senior Lakers all-time scoring leader and Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame member, Heard feels a strong allegiance to the Burnaby organization, despite having spent a handful of seasons as an assistant coach with New West’s senior A ‘Bellies. Last year was supposed to be a year of rest after resigning, along with the rest of the New West coaching staff, following the 2017 Mann Cup series. Instead, he found himself helping out with the Burnaby junior B-1 team, working with his son Ryan’s team.

After Burnaby accepted Jason Dallevalle’s resignation in December, due to wanting to spend more time with his family, it didn’t take long for Parker to come calling.

“After meeting with Brad it kind of all came together,” said Heard. “He had the right answers to my questions, and I could see that he’s making a lot of the right decisions in building the organization back up.”

The team has a core of veterans, including Dylan Kaminski, Ethan McLaren, Kieran McKay and Liam McIntosh, to lean on. Netminder Matteo Tack, meanwhile, is ready to build on a .814 save percentage as the workhorse of the backline. Diesel De Guzman, picked up in a swap with PoCo, will share crease duties.

“There’s going to be a lot of depth, and we will be working in tandem with our junior B-1 coaches to make sure our communication and our systems are coordinated,” said Heard. “In a five-year program, it’s difficult for midget graduates to make the jump to junior A; our goal is to build the B-1 team as a feeder club and make it a clear path for progression.”

As the team gears up for the April 27 season opener in Delta against the Islanders, the target is to push the envelope as far as expectations. The team will be without a handful of key returnees due to school commitments – including recently acquired Ty Yanko, Kaminski and McKay – but that won’t be used as an excuse.

“We have a lot of things for the players to take in – basically a new system, new linemates, new coaches,” noted Heard. “At this stage our goaltending and defence will be strong, and I think our scoring has potential.”

Their first exhibition test was a loss to Port Coquitlam, which had Heard coaching against his former senior Lakers and Adanacs linemate Dan Stroup. He said at one point, when players were getting a bit rambunctious on the floor, he exchanged glances with Stroup and smiled. “It’s kind of ‘Here we are again,’” said Heard.

The squad hosts Delta on Sunday, 6:30 p.m. at Copeland. The regular season kicks off April 27 in Ladner, with their home opener April 29 against Langley.

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