Since relocating from Langley in 2006, the West Kelowna Warriors have become a British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) staple, often boasting a solid crowd and a skilled lineup with high expectations with each new season.
When the Westside Warriors began their inaugural season playing home games out of the Memorial Arena in Kelowna.
Construction of Royal LePage Place wouldn’t be ready until the following year, so the team would bus its fans to Memorial, establishing a strong following right from the get-go.
“We were quite impressed with how the (Westside) community supported the team when they had to go to Kelowna,” said Warriors president Chris Laurie.
“Year one, there was a lot of excitement. At the time, West Kelowna wasn’t a city. It was a municipality, so it maybe lacked some civic pride and maybe we brought that.
“There were a lot of people that were proud to live in West Kelowna and we brought a bit of an identity that the residents could hang their hat on.”
In the early years, the Warriors roster featured an abundance of homegrown talent.
Coached by Mark Howell, the Warriors played a tough brand of hockey that matched up well against other teams.
Howell’s teams would exceed expectations, making the playoffs in the first two years, but losing in the first round in 2006-07 and the second in 2007-08.
“Those were two of the better years for this franchise,” said Laurie.
“I remember the first year in Royal LePage Place. There was a lot of buzz.
“We averaged almost 1,200 fans on a routine basis and there was a lot of passion.”
A player that added to the buzz was future Stanley Cup champion Justin Schultz.
The West Kelowna native was a fan favourite for his superior hockey sense and offensive ability, patrolling the blueline from 2006 to 2009.
In his first full season with the Warriors, he registered 40 points in 51 games and was the team’s number one defenceman as a 17-year-old.
His stellar play earned him a second-round selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, taken 43rd overall by the Anaheim Ducks.
While the Warriors would have some success after the Schultz era, the team didn’t make some real noise until the 2012-13 season when the team made the conference finals.
But, then after two first-round exits in 2013-14 and 2014-15, the Warriors finally captured the BCHL’s ultimate prize in 2015-16.
“In 2016, it was the right mix of players,” said Laurie.
A strong leadership group also made a big impact.
Captain Kyle Marino led the way with a big-physical presence on the back-end, while forward Jonathan Desbiens led the team in scoring.
The Warriors will hope to bring home another championship next season after a rollercoaster of events last year.
With the Warriors heavily relying on rookies to do the heavylifting, the team struggled out of the gate, sitting in last place after the opening two months of the season.
Changes had to be made.
“This ownership group of John Murphy (governor) and Rod Hume (managing partner) purchased the team in mid-November,” said Laurie.
“That’s when I joined as well and that’s when we re-evaluated both on the business side and the hockey side.
“We made a lot of changes by Christmas time.”
To shake things up, the Warriors hired new coach Simon Ferguson, who played for the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL, and were the most active team at the BCHL trade deadline.
The team finished the year off strong, winning four out of their last five games before losing to the Penticton Vees in the first round of the playoffs.
Since then, the management group has been recruiting hard and has landed some exciting talent for next season.
“We’ve now got an older and a more skilled roster for next season,” said Laurie.
“We’re very excited for next season.”