By Nick Greenizan
The story of the Surrey Eagles’ season has been one of upheaval, with three head coaches behind the bench since August and, due to injuries and roster moves, more players in and out of the dressing room than nearly any junior ‘A’ hockey team in the country.
One constant, however, has been 16-year-old rookie forward Brandon Santa Juana, who has not only exceeded the usual expectations placed upon such a young player, but also provided a glimmer of hope for the team that will miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
The Langley native – and product of the Delta Hockey Academy – had 10 goals and nine assists in 48 games, and has been one of the BC Hockey League team’s top players since the calendar turned to 2019.
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be on the team this season.
“We got to see him two years ago when he was playing (U15) in Delta… and (former Eagle) Spencer Bennett was his coach,” Eagles general manager Blaine Neufeld told Peace Arch News.
“We noticed him, and thought he was a real quality player – maybe not the flashiest guy – but he was somebody we kind of targeted to join our group in 2019-2020.”
However, the team’s plan was accelerated when Santa Juana had what Neufeld described as “just an unbelievable training camp.”
“I think my overall game just got better in every game and practice during camp,” Santa Juana said. “I was expecting to go back to the academy this year, too, and just develop my game more, but then they asked me to play here.”
The decision to make the leap to the BCHL early was not a decision either side came to lightly. Neufeld said he had a long conversation with Delta Hockey Academy director Ian Gallagher about whether the teen was ready to play at that level.
“It was a good conversation and we had Brandon’s best intentions at heart,” Neufeld said. “We just wanted to make sure this was right for him, and he would continue to develop this way.
“With the support of the academy and with our staff believing in him, I thought it was the right move to make – and it’s proven to be a good move for him and us. I think maybe he surprised himself a little bit, making the team, but it was him taking advantage of an opportunity.”
Santa Juana, too, had reservations initially, considering that most 16-year-olds who play full time in junior ‘A’ play limited roles with little ice time, as teams rely heavily on older, more experienced players.
Such a role might stunt his growth, he thought.
“It was kind of iffy at the start – I didn’t want to come in and play on a fourth line. But they promised me that wasn’t (the plan).”
Eagles’ coaches – first Peter Schaefer, who took over from Brandon West just before training camp, and later Linden Saip, who took over from Schaefer when the latter was fired – have lived up to their end of the bargain, playing Santa Juana in all situations, from penalty kill to the power play.
In recent weeks, he’s been on a line with fellow top forwards Holden Katzalay and Dawson McKay, and both Neufeld and Saip have noticed improved play since the Christmas break – something Neufeld points out is not uncommon with junior-hockey rookies.
“With young guys, come Christmastime, I see them as different players. It’s quite something when they go home and get a mental break over the holidays and then they come back and look like a new person,” Neufeld said.
Though he’s taken a step forward in the last half of the season, Saip is quick to point out that the rookie has been good since Day 1.
“Young guys, they tend to come out of their shell (as the season goes on), but Santa has been a stud for us all year.”
Santa Juana’s role with the Birds has also been boosted, at least in part, as a result of the lineup upheaval the team has faced nearly all season. With so many players injured, it gave him a chance to play a bigger part on the team.
Saip, however, believes Santa Juana would have forced his way up the lineup regardless.