It didn't take long for Steve Koshey to realize things were different in this part of the B.C. Hockey League landscape.
After playing in relative anonymity for two seasons with his hometown Trail Smoke Eaters, Koshey was traded to the Surrey Eagles early last season. In just his second practise with the Birds, Koshey was amazed to see a scout from the NHL's Los Angeles Kings watching from the stands.
"That was pretty mind blowing for me," Koshey said with a shake of his head. "Trail is my hometown and I love the place but there is definitely a difference in exposure to college scouts here in Surrey. Playing here helped me quite a bit and I got more looks from scouts here than I did in Trail.
"I understand why. Travelling to Trail is a long trip and when I was talking to scouts, not many of them said they had been there. Mainland teams have a lot more exposure just because there are so many teams in one small area."
Last week, the Eagles' season ended in the BCHL's Coastal Conference finals for the second year in a row. While the Birds do not have a championship pennant to hoist to the rafters, overall it was a banner season in the Eagles nest. In addition to finishing in the top four of the playoffs, 10 Surrey players will be moving on having earned scholarships to U.S. colleges. At least two other Eagles are likely to sign offers in the weeks ahead, meaning that on a roster of 21 players, more than half will earn scholarships.
Matt Erhart, Surrey's head coach and general manager, is a former Eagles defenceman who went on to play college hockey at Quinnipiac. His experience playing at that level has guided him as he rebuilt the Surrey program over the past two seasons.
"When I took over as head coach, my goal was to recruit players who I thought had a chance to play college hockey," Erhart said. "It takes a special player to earn a college scholarship - skill obviously helps but the players also have to have the academics, work ethic and time management skills to succeed at the college level. So it's a complete athlete that we're looking for here. We do bring in the odd guy from the Western Hockey League and with them, we try and help them move on the CIS (Canadian university hockey). No matter who plays here, we'll do all we can to help them move on to the next level."
This season, the hard work has paid off. While some players arrive in Surrey with college scholarships already in their pockets - like forwards Charles Orzetti (Yale), Brandon Tanev (Providence) and Brayden Jaw (Harvard) - the rest earned their deals through hard work under the guidance of Erhart and assistant coach Gary Nylund, a former NHL defenceman. The list of college-bound Eagles includes Koshey (Alabama-Huntsville), captain Tyler Morley (Alaska-Fairbanks), Devon Toews (Quinnipiac), Andrew Hunt (Clarkson), Matt Cronin (Merrimack), Alex Hagen (St. Lawrence) and Michael Stenerson (Alaska-Anchorage). Most scholarships begin in September but some will be deferred until September of 2013.
"The whole coaching staff was there for me whenever I had questions," Morley said. "They helped me tremendously with my choice of schools. They did a good job of slowing things down because for me, it was a lot happening at once. They helped me go through the process at my pace and that allowed me to stay focused on hockey and keep playing well without getting distracted.
Morley added the Surrey coaches have also brought the players up to speed on what will be expected of them after they leave the Eagles Nest and move on to college hockey.
"Matt's told us all about playing there and how we have to be ready to give 100 per cent every time we step on the ice," Morley said. "You might be able to get away with poor effort some nights here, but in college, there are 35 guys on the team and every night there are 10 guys sitting in the stands who want to play. If you don't show up one night, you can find yourself in the stands for a month or two."
While Erhart is thrilled to have so many players moving on, the down side of such success is he has to replace every one of those players to build a team for next season. Fortunately for Erhart, the success the Eagles have enjoyed on and off the ice in the last two campaigns actually makes recruiting easier.
Throw in the Olympic-sized ice rink at South Surrey Arena, the favourable climate and a location that makes it easy for scouts to come watch players and Erhart's program almost sells itself.
"When we talk to kids who are trying to decide between five or six teams in our league, usually the first thing parents look at is scholarships and the second is how the team did in the standings," Erhart said. "Generally the two things go hand in hand - if you have a bunch of kids getting scholarships, then you should have a pretty good team. Our track record the last couple of years (second in the BCHL's Coastal Conference two years running) makes it a lot easier to talk to parents on the phone about our program. When parents see Surrey Eagles in their call display, they're more willing to talk to us because they know we give our players a lot of opportunities."