Things are starting to feel more familiar for Head Coach Mark Collins and his Bellingham Blazers. This year will be the Blazers’ second participating in the Western States Hockey League (WSHL). Following a 2016/2017 season that saw them transition from the Northern Pacific Hockey League to the WSHL, Collins and his young hockey team look to bounce back from an inaugural season that proved to be downright tough.
Collins says there was a noticeable increase in the level of play between the two different leagues. He says the WSHL has an overall higher quality of players, which makes for more competitive hockey and better teams. Last year, in addition to joining a new league, the Blazers had a very young team which also proved to be a stepping stone. Collins is excited for this season as the Blazers are returning their young talented core and adding some new key acquisitions.
Last year, Collins said he thought his team would finish in the top five or 10 but when his young team started playing teams stocked with veterans who were familiar with the WSHL style of play it became harder for the Blazers to win games consistently. This year the Blazers look to flip the script. They are now one of those seasoned teams stacked with veterans, and look to be on the winning side of things.
“I expect to win every game,” Collins says. “That’s the mindset our players have to have too. We want to be a top five team in the league this year.”
Collins has coached the team since the Blazers’ inception in 2012. He and his father even helped bring the team to Bellingham. Back when the team was in the Northern Pacific Hockey League, Collins won coach of the year in 2013 and the team won back to back Cascade Cups in 2013 and 2014. Collins knows this success will translate into the WSHL. It’s just all about his team hitting their stride and getting more experience.
This year, the Blazers have a slew of key players returning with more experience under their belts. Dane Halstead, Tommy Steven and Jamahl Eakett are just a few of the returning players Collins believes will make an impact on the team this upcoming season. Although it isn’t just the returning players that seek to make an impact on this Blazers team. Defenseman Gustuf Kumpala has joined the team all the way from Trollhattan, Sweden, and possesses both defensive and offensive prowess.
Sweden isn’t the only foreign land or far-away place the Blazers get players from. Bellingham’s hockey team is made up of players from all over the United States and other countries. On the roster there are players from the Midwest; East and West Coast; Canada, Australia, Russia and Sweden. Because players on the Blazers range between the ages of 16 to 20 years old, players coming from far away depend on host families to sponsor them for the season.
John Ayre, president of the Blazers, says community outreach is a big reason why the Blazers are able to function. He says without the graciousness of the Whatcom County community, the players wouldn’t be able to find a place to stay while playing on the team.
“We have guys come from all over to play for this team,” Ayre says. “It’s huge that people volunteer to host them. It allows these kids to participate in such a great opportunity.”
These host families are known in the junior hockey world as billet families. Billet families provide food and a place to sleep for the athletes. They also travel to the games to root on their host players throughout the season. Ayre says the Blazers like to show their appreciation for the billet families every year by hosting a game in their honor. At the end of the special event, the billet families pose with the entire team for a group photo.
The Blazers don’t just host one event night – every year the Blazers have multiple event nights that take place at the Bellingham Sportsplex. Last October they hosted a “Pink the Rink” event in support of breast cancer awareness. Other special event nights include a “Teddy Bear Toss” night which will happen sometime in December and a “Law Enforcement” night in February.
The 2017/2018 season is in full swing. “Every year has its own identity,” Collins says. “Each year you want to build chemistry, find leadership and play the best you can. We’re ready to see what this year holds.”