The Grand Forks Border Bruins didn’t have a ton of highlights to look back on over their 2019-2020 season in the Junior B Kootenay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL). The team lost its stalwart captain to a season-ending injury with more than two months to play before letting slip its tenuous grip on the playoff race late in the season to a team that had been below them since nearly day one of the campaign.
Through it all though, the team’s young guns shared flashes of brilliance to lead their team as they could.
Out of more than 150 rookies in the 20-team league, Border Bruins Elvis Slack, Kyle Bailey and Wyatt Gelinas combined for 130 points over the course of the season – a league-leading tally for any rookie trio.
Slack himself netted 50 points in 42 games to lead his team in scoring, followed by Gelinas (42 points in 45 games) and Bailey (38 points in 41 games).
The production didn’t go unrecognized by higher-level scouts either. This spring, both Slack and Bailey have signed with the Junior A-level Weyburn Wings of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL). The two will be teammates for a third time in their young careers, in a third province.
Two Bruins on the Rise! Congratulations Elvis Slack and Kyle Bailey! These teammates both have committed to playing in the @theSJHL with the @weyburnredwings! You all are gaining two amazing young men and we will be watching and cheering you on!! 💛🖤@KIJHL pic.twitter.com/NniWgyB9cF
— Border Bruins (@BorderBruins) April 26, 2020
“It’s always nice knowing that there’s chemistry there,” said Weyburn coach and NHL veteran Rich Pilon of signing the duo. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to start the season together, but you already know that [chemistry] works.”
Pilon said that both Slack and Bailey were targeted because of their speed and their size. (Anyone watching a Border Bruins game after Bailey arrived in December 2019 from Revelstoke would have noticed the way the number 11 on his back dipped and weaved its way out of the defensive zone time and time again as the six-foot, one-inch Calgarian hauled the puck up the ice, leaving opposition standing like traffic cones.)
Slack, while also able to dangle the puck past swift-moving defensemen, scored many of his 28 goals last season from the slot, where he out-muscled opponents. It’s something the two are going to have to do a lot more of in the SJHL too, Pilon said.
“There are teams in our league and they basically want to bully you,” the coach said. “It’s not just puck separation. They want to put you in the bleachers.”
“I think I play the same way,” Slack said. “I hit a lot, so I think I’ll fit right in there.”
Slack was the first of the Border Bruins pair on Pilon’s radar. The coach had plans to bring Slack to an Edmonton Oilers game in March and meet the NHL coach Dave Tippett. Though Slack ended up going, no meet-and-greet was possible as COVID-19 restrictions were beginning to ramp up. Slack’s tryouts for other teams were also nixed due to the virus, and, at the end of the day, playing for a former NHLer had a certain allure.
After a conversation with Bailey about their hockey futures, Slack said he gave his teammate Pilon’s number.
“I just heard they had a really good coach, and a great town – lot’s of fans as well,” Bailey said of what drew him to Weyburn. He was also weighing going to another SJHL team when Slack connected him with Pilon.
“I just thought Weyburn would be the better option because I already knew Elvis was going there,” Bailey said, and he really liked what he’d heard about his future coach.
Pilon’s expectations of his players are clear too: grit and character. “The only two things I care about are how you treat people and how hard you work,” he said. If players satisfy those requirements, they’ll be given opportunities to show their skill.
Bailey’s performance last season in Grand Forks exemplifies what can happen when a player is given the space and ice time to demonstrate their worth to a team – something both are hoping to earn in Weyburn.
When he arrived from the Revelstoke Grizzlies in December, Bailey had a total of eight points over 18 games. Alongside Slack and under coach John Clewlow, the forward notched 30 points in 23 games.
“I told him I’d give him all the opportunity in the world to to play his hockey style and try new things to help himself go to the next level,” Clewlow recalled of how he convinced Bailey to report to Grand Forks after the trade. “He obviously showed up and started doing that because we saw a totally different player than what was in Revelstoke.”
Around the time Bailey arrived in the Boundary, Clewlow already knew that he would be losing Slack after the end of the season to higher-level hockey. While it’s a tough blow for the immediate team, it’s part of the Border Bruins’ purpose, the coach said.
“Every player that comes through, our goal is to get them on to the next level of hockey,” Clewlow said. “You’ll know with some players that you’re going to lose them this season or next season to a higher level of hockey. That’s good for the players and it’s good for our organization as well.”
Now looking for his next Slack and Bailey tandem, Clewlow said scouting has been more difficult this spring, with no training camp. Instead, he’s been talking with minor hockey coaches about players whose stats have caught his eye.
Now, going into his third year behind the bench, Clewlow said the team is looking for some top-notch defensemen to help level out the scoring roller coaster that the team rode last season. To replace the two prolific scorers he’s losing, Clewlow is looking to those within his team to take charge. Hometown player Rilee Poffenroth, the Border Bruins’ captain for next season, being one of Clewlow’s first hopes.
– With files from Gerry Foster