Abbotsford pro hockey community comes together in summer

Surveying the scene at the Matsqui Recreation Centre ice rink on Thursday afternoon, Dean Arsene can't help but smile.

Dean Arsene works on his mobility and puck-handling at MRC last Thursday.

Dean Arsene works on his mobility and puck-handling at MRC last Thursday.

Surveying the scene at the Matsqui Recreation Centre ice rink on Thursday afternoon, Dean Arsene can’t help but smile.

At 31, Arsene is one of the elder statesmen in the Abbotsford pro hockey fraternity. A decade ago, when he was a young guy coming up through the ranks, the members of that fraternity could be counted with the fingers on one hand.

On this day, there are a dozen pro hockey players on the ice at MRC, running through uptempo drills under the watchful eye of local coaches Brad Bowen and Andy Neilsen.

The practices, which run twice a week during the summer, usually draw between eight at 15 players. It’s evidence that the Abbotsford hockey scene is healthy and growing.

“For the longest time, there were only a couple guys coming up,” Arsene marveled. “First it was Brad Moran, then myself, and then Ryan Craig.

“But now, you’ve got a lot of younger guys who are great players. To be able to train with them right in your back yard is a perfect opportunity. It’s a lot of fun.”

The summer skates brings together a who’s who of Abbotsford Minor Hockey products.

There’s Arsene, a two-time AHL Calder Cup winner who recently signed with the Phoenix Coyotes organization. There’s David Van der Gulik, a former Abbotsford Heat player who is heading into his second season in the Colorado Avalanche system.

Siblings Kyle and Clayton Cumiskey played for the NHL’s Avalanche and the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, respectively, last season. Towering 6’8″ enforcer Riley Emmerson spent the bulk of last year with the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies.

Youngsters Derek Grant (AHL Binghamton Senators) and Mark Isherwood (ECHL Alaska Aces) are both coming off championships in their first pro seasons.

The local crew is augmented by several Abbotsford Heat players, both past and current – goalie Leland Irving, defenceman Chris Breen and forward Cam Cunning – and a handful of players from around the Fraser Valley including Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins goalie Brad Thiessen of Aldergrove, and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Kyle Beach, a Kelowna native who spends his summers in the Semiahmoo area.

It’s a diverse group that brings with it some interesting dynamics. Last season, Arsene and Beach were divisional rivals in the AHL, playing for the Peoria Rivermen and Rockford IceHogs, respectively. Arsene, a rugged defenceman, had many a run-in with Beach, an agitating forward.

“It’s one of those things where, during the season, you’re fighting for position with your team,” Arsene said with a chuckle. “But when you see guys in the summer, you shake hands and you put it all aside. It’s the beauty of hockey – guys are able to see that what happens on the ice doesn’t translate off it.”

The summer skates at MRC are unique in that the players don’t scrimmage – it’s all fundamental skill work.

“It’s amazing – these guys come here, and that’s all they want to do,” said Bowen, a former New York Islanders scout who heads up the hockey academy at Yale Secondary these days. “It doesn’t matter what age they are, they’re fighting for jobs, and they have to get better. The older guys, like David, have to compete with the younger guys coming up, like Derek.”

Van der Gulik, who recently inked a new one-year, two-way contract with the Avalanche, said the opportunity for on-ice work alongside fellow pros is tremendously beneficial.

“Years ago, we never had anything like this,” he said. “There used to be just a few of us coming out, and then word of mouth spreads.

“It’s a practice without having to worry about making mistakes and having coaches yell at you. You work hard and you don’t cheat yourself, but you don’t stress too much about it. At the end of August, it gets a little more serious. But right now, it’s about getting the puck, getting a feel for things again.”

Irving, a Swan Hills, Alta. native, is spending his second consecutive off-season here, and he said he’s really enjoyed becoming an adopted Abbotsfordian.

“To be able to come here and be a bigger part of the community has been a lot of fun,” he said, noting he’s had opportunities to participate in street hockey events and golf tournaments on behalf of the Heat.

“Almost everybody here has played against each other, and a lot of us have played with each other. It’s nice to step on the ice together. You’re working hard, but you’re having fun doing it.”