Zakery Babin is under attack. Ten minutes after puck drop, the Surrey Knights goalie has been pelted by 15 shots. His team has not yet registered a single attempt.
The Knights, in last place in the Pacific Junior Hockey League, are mired in an unprecedented losing skid that today stands at 84 games. On this October evening in the Vancouver suburbs, Babin's agile play holds the score at zero against the defending league champion Aldergrove Kodiaks.
Midway through the game, a Kodiaks forward catapults Knights defenceman Ethan Koskelainen into the end boards from behind. Blood stains the ice.
While a trainer works on Koskelainen – the gash above the 18-year-old's right eye needs stitches and his left wrist might be fractured – there's a roar from the small crowd. The Knights score on the power play to go up 1-0.
Koskelainen's mom wants to drive him to the hospital. His nose is dolloped in blood, a hockey Rudolph. Another smear reddens his blond hair. "I'm fine," he tells his mom and insists he's staying to watch the rest of the game. Don Cherry would lionize this kid.
Surrey Knights' goalie Zakery Babin, centre, Jordan Robinson (5), Kalem Burns (4) and Kurtis Kapitza (8) look on as North Vancouver Wolf Pack's Kyle Hoover (8) and Justin Lee (91) celebrate a goal by Nathan Haaksma during the third period of a PJHL hockey game in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday October 26, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/ The Globe and Mail)
It was more than two years ago, September, 2015, when it started to go backward for the Knights. The team was losing to the Mission City Outlaws when the Outlaws went after a younger Knights player. A bench-clearing brawl ensued. Even the coaches got involved. John Craighead, the Knights coach, co-owner, and former minor-league tough guy, went to the Mission bench, intending to quell the fighting.
As the coaches jostled, an Outlaws player not in uniform intervened. Craighead is alleged to have hit the player. The RCMP investigated but no charges were laid. BC Hockey, however, levied a suspension of six years. Under a pall – an exiled coach who'd once played a few games for the Toronto Maple Leafs – the Knights roster suffered defections and new players were reluctant to join the team. The on-ice product suffered. The last game the Knights won was Nov. 19, 2015.
Last season, the Knights lost all 44 games. This past spring, Hockey Canada reviewed Craighead's six-year suspension. It questioned the quality of BC Hockey's investigation and slashed Craighead's punishment. The PJHL then sought to expel the Knights franchise from its league because it felt it tarnished the league.
A league-organized hearing was held in August but a decision was put on hold, as Craighead and the Knights had filed a civil suit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to fight back to remain in the league. A complaint at the BC Human Rights Tribunal was also filed.
In the BC Supreme Court and the Human Rights Tribunal, Craighead will face the PJHL and its president, Ray Stonehouse. In a filing to the province's Human Rights Tribunal, it is alleged the efforts to punish Craighead and eject the Knights is "motivated, at least in part, by racial discrimination." Craighead is black and co-owner Amar Gill is Indo-Canadian.
Stonehouse declined comment. George Cadman, the PJHL's lawyer, said a settlement was unlikely. "This will undoubtedly proceed to court."
BC Hockey defends its suspension. "Our investigation was a good investigation," BC Hockey chief executive Barry Petrachenko says.
Surrey Knights' Ethan Koskelainem holds a towel to his head as trainer John Chwyl checks on him after he was cut above the eye and injured his wrist when he was checked from behind into the boards by Aldergrove Kodiaks' Dayton Spink during the first period of a PJHL hockey game in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday October 19, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail)
Back at the North Surrey Recreational Centre, there is the possibility the losing streak could end. The Knights score again after their power-play goal. But as the second period ticks down, the Kodiaks strike with 12.7 seconds left to cut the lead to 2-1.
In a small conference room above and behind the Knights net, Craighead and Gill watch the game unfold.
"We're good hockey people," says Craighead, who was re-instated by Hockey Canada as team co-owner. "Hockey's my life. Things got derailed. The franchise has paid a hefty price."
Alongside the two owners is Laurence Gilman, a former Vancouver Canucks assistant general manager. Gilman and Lorne Henning, another former Canucks executive, signed on in August to help the Knights with everything from management advice to mentoring coaches and players. It was an unlikely boost for a woebegone team.
"That's the best stretch we've played," Gilman says of the action on the ice, as the Knights hold their lead.
Tonight, Craighead, Gill, and Gilman are having fun, joking and laughing, talking hockey. These guys, like the young men on the ice, love the game. Hockey nerds. The prospect of a win stokes the atmosphere. "I'd be very happy for the boys," Craighead says. Gilman foresees a difficult third period, as the Kodiaks stare at the ignominy of losing to the Surrey Knights. "This is going to be an onslaught."
The play on the ice has been sloppy and does not improve. The Knights' coaches, 23-year-old identical twin brothers Spencer and Scott McHaffie, are visibly agitated. The Kodiaks attack and tie the game.
With seven minutes on the clock, the Kodiaks score again to go ahead. The momentum has turned, and Knights end up losing 5-3, their 79th loss in a row.
"Just not good enough," a deflated Gill says.
"Welcome to our world," Craighead says. "Well, you can write it was a close game."
In a cramped Knights locker room, the coaches rally. "Stay positive," Spencer McHaffie urges. "The way you guys are working, the way you guys are battling, it's only a matter of time."
The funk of losing dissipates and jocular camaraderie returns. The teenagers are laughing and shouting.
Outside the room, Koskelainen is ready to head to the hospital. "I don't think there's any reason to stop grinding," he says. "We have nothing to lose now. That's motivation for every game."
Surrey Knights' goalie Zakery Babin carries his gear to his car after losing to the Aldergrove Kodiaks 5-3, their 79th consecutive loss, during a PJHL hockey game in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday October 19, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail)
"Tiring – and frustrating," says Babin, 20, when asked what it's like to face 50-plus shots a night. "It would be nice to get a win."
Babin has played third-tier junior hockey in small towns in the B.C. Interior and in Atlanta. He was hurt in a car accident last year and missed the season. But he got a chance to play again when the Knights called this summer. He hopes his play propels him to college hockey.
"The ideal school is the University of [Nevada] Las Vegas. That'd be cool," Babin says. "Or, literally, anywhere."
Constant losing has not yet worn him down.
"It's nice to be playing again," Babin says. "I'm not going to stop until it's not an option. It's still hockey, right?"
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