Title defence begins tonight for Warriors

West Kelowna will hoist four banners, including RBC Cup championship, prior to BCHL home opener against Trail

Along with his teammates, the fans and the entire organization, Nicholas Rutigliano plans to savour the moment.

Friday night at Royal LePage Place, the West Kelowna Warriors will celebrate the club’s magical 2015-16 season by raising four banners to the rafters—the Interior Division, BCHL, Western Canada Cup and RBC Cup titles.

“It’s going to be a special moment,” said Rutigliano, who was named the Warriors’ new captain in the off-season. “We when see those banners go up it’ll show just how all the hard work and dedication paid off.

“It’ will be great to celebrate it with all the people who were part of it, the loyal fans who will be there Friday,” he added. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

Following the ceremony, it’s back to business for the defending Canadian junior A champs who open the 2016-17 BCHL season against the Trail Smoke Eaters. Face off is 7 p.m.

With just eight players returning from last year’s club, the Warriors will have a considerably different look this season.

Rutigliano said the sooner the Warriors find team chemistry, the better.

‘”With so many new guys, the biggest thing we need right off the bat is to really get to know each other,” Rutigliano said. “It’s going to be important for this group to bond as quickly as possible.

“Once you bond as a team, it’s hard to break. That was the biggest thing about last year’s team and why we had success.”

Gone from last year’s championship squad are forwards Jonathan Desbiens, Liam Blackburn, Kylar Hope and Garrett Forster, who combined for 124 goals.

Defensive stalwarts Rylan Yaremko and Kristian Blumenschien have also moved on to college, as has goalie Matthew Greenfield.

Returning on the back end is Rutigliano, Tyler Anderson and Jake Harrison, while Quin Foreman, Conner Sodergren, Reed Gunville and Jared Marino return with veteran leadership up front.

Keelan Williams, a key contributor down the stretch filling in for an injured Greenfield, gives West Kelowna some stability in goal.

Among the newcomers expected to contribute on defense will be Stephen Kleysen, 19, a Winnipeg native with both Canadian junior A and USHL experience, and Michael Ryan from Marion, Mass.

Surrey’s Parm Daliwhal, Mitch Martan from Whitby, ON, and Chase Dubois from Williams Lake will be called upon to help fill the scoring void at forward.

Overall, the Warriors will be a somewhat smaller and younger team than last year, but hope to be able to pressure their opponents with team speed.

And with so many new faces, it may not be all smooth sailing early in the 2016-17 campaign.

Forward Quin Foreman said that’s where the leadership of the eight returning players comes in.

“What we learned last year, the young guys will be able to see how we (veterans) react in certain situations,” said Foreman. “We were the best team in the country but it didn’t happen without some tough times. Stuff does go wrong and you’re going to have a bad weekend once in a while. It’s not the end of the world. We just have to be patient and stick with it.”

As for the competition the Warriors will face within the Interior Division, head coach and GM Rylan Ferster expects another battle from start to finish.

“It’s been, I think, the toughest division since I’ve been coaching and I don’t expect it to be  any different this year,” said Ferster. “There won’t be any easy nights.”

The Warriors and Smoke Eaters will meet again Saturday in Trail in the back half of the home-and-home set.