By all accounts put forth by prognosticators through the early going, the road to a Western Hockey League title this season is likely to run through either Kelowna or Portland. However, the Victoria Royals would certainly like to force opponents to embark on a couple of ferry rides as part of the championship travel package next spring.
Located on Vancouver Island, the city of Victoria has been home to the Royals for a couple of years now, since the relocation of the franchise that was once the expansion Chilliwack Bruins. The trip by bus to Victoria includes a two-hour ride by boat. Most Western Conference teams arrive in British Columbia’s capital city these days with back-to-back games on the agenda. The Royals are determined to make the WHL’s western-most outpost a difficult place to play.
One of the current veterans in Victoria, forward Logan Nelson, will share the responsibility this season in making the Royals less than hospitable hosts. Selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the fifth round, 133rd overall, at the 2012 NHL Draft, Nelson is playing for a pro contract during this, his third full season with the Royals. Now 20, the native of Rogers, Minnesota recognizes the importance of putting in a consistent performance every night.
“It is important,” Nelson said prior to a road game in Kelowna against the Rockets. “This year is kind of what the past 15 years of my career comes down to. Best thing I can do is be a team guy, and obviously Buffalo and Rochester are on my mind. It has to be. I want to come out and perform and work hard every time out, then earn a spot next year.”
With individual expectations very high, Nelson remains very focused on the success of the entire team.
“I know my team’s going to be right behind me all year,” he said. “With team success comes individual success.”
Over the past summer months, Nelson kept busy on the ice attending the Sabres rookie camp and the annual tournament in Traverse City. The Sabres reached the tournament finale, played on September 9, Nelson’s birthday. The Sabres lost the game 4-2 to the Detroit Red Wings, but Nelson managed an assist.
“It was a good experience for me to be there with the Buffalo Sabres organization,” Nelson offered. “Our team had good success in the tournament. When you’re team is playing good, like I said before, individual success comes with that. It was good for me to see that side of the game, but it’s good to be back to get the season rolling here in Victoria.”
During his time with the Sabres, Nelson found some comfort as he looked around the dressing rooms and saw a number of former WHL players. Of note was forward Kevin Sundher, who began his WHL career in Chilliwack and was part of the contingent that moved over to Victoria.
“You play with and against these guys all year long and then you kind of get separated when guys go to college or they move on to pro hockey,” Nelson said. “Seeing Sundher with Buffalo kind of pushes me, having seen him come through the ranks with the same (junior) organization. I want to be where he’s at, hopefully next year.”
“And there was Colin Jacobs too, he played for Prince George and will be in Rochester this year. I know people can make it from this league, so it pushes people, younger guys to keep in mind that it’s all possible.”
And speaking of possibilities, Nelson is proud of the road to professional hockey that he has chosen to travel. From Minnesota to Victoria, he has absolutely no second thoughts about foregoing college hockey for the junior route.
“I was 16 when I moved away to play midget in Kansas City with the Russell Stover program,” Nelson explained. “Then I moved on to the USHL (Des Moines Buccaneers). My year there wasn’t all that I wanted it to be. It’s a great hockey league, but it just wasn’t the place for me. So I flew out to Victoria and really didn’t know what to expect, but I signed with them the next week (August, 2011).
“Looking back now, I wouldn’t change a thing about where I’m at and I really want to encourage guys to keep their eyes open to new opportunities.”
So how does a youngster from the American midwest get used to life on Canada’s west coast? Every road trip includes a couple of hours of travel on the BC Ferries system.
“The ferry rides, it’s cool, definitely,” he said. “Back home, we were surrounded by lakes in Minnesota, but there is a lot of snow back home, too. I don’t see much of that around Victoria in the winter. But the island life is a lot of fun. It’s been new for me, and I’ve adapted pretty well to it.”
One of the biggest challenges of Nelson’s junior career in Victoria came last season. In his first game back after the Christmas break, he suffered a broken ankle, an injury that wound up limiting him to a total of 49 games last year. It was a difficult time for Nelson, a player who is not used to watching from the sidelines.
“Yeh, it was the first time I missed that much time due to an injury,” he said. “It was hard to stay in the right frame of mind at times, to stay positive. You miss games, and miss being on the road with the guys.
“And then, even to see those guys tired and working so hard. You know, you just want to be part of it. The biggest thing you can do is keep your spirits up and be there for the guys. This year my focus is to stay healthy and be in the lineup every night to help my team.”
If Nelson can stay in the lineup this season, it would seem reasonable to assume his offensive output will keep him among the team’s scoring leaders. He put up 62 points in 71 games during his rookie season, then, during his aforementioned injury-shortened campaign last year, he was good for 43 points in 49 games. He chipped in during the playoffs with two goals and four assists in six games.
Out of the gate this season, Nelson leads the Royals with three goals and five helpers in nine games. Victoria has four wins so far, with one impressive come-from-behind shootout victory in Kelowna over the Rockets, who have not lost in regulation so far this season.
Nelson is joined this season in Victoria by offensively gifted forward Steven Hodges (FLA, 2012), and hulking defenseman Keegan Kanzig (CGY, 2013). The Royals roster also includes five other Americans, including brothers Ben and Jack Walker from Edina, Minnesota.
Nelson has not yet been signed by Buffalo. He agrees that this season is very important, as he is focused on securing a pro contract. He also agrees that hockey has become a 12-month-a-year proposition these days, a reality he readily accepts. As he approaches the 150-game mark in the WHL, he has developed some perspective.
“Focusing on hockey is easy for the guys in this league,” he said. “We come to work every day and it’s a place that we want to be. We’re not sitting at a desk or driving a bus. We’re doing what we love and its fun.
“The process is hard, its hard work, but I think everybody here enjoys it. I think we’re all very, very fortunate to play hockey every single day and the off-season is just part of it. That’s where we build our strength and speed. It’s a year-long process. There are days off, and days when you try not to think about hockey, but you come ready to the rink.
“I think we are all very fortunate to be able to play in this league.”