Sports

Once-proud Vancouver Giants franchise seeking return to glory

VANCOUVER — Gordie Howe is gone, but the Vancouver Giants want to make sure his impact on their franchise will never be forgotten.

The Giants will honour the late hockey legend in a pre-game ceremony when they host the Everett Silvertips in their Western Hockey League season opener Friday. In addition to paying tribute to Howe, a former minority owner of the team who was adored by players, the Giants will use the ceremony as a springboard in their quest to revitalize their once-proud franchise.

"It's not about what Gordie was as a hockey player and all the accolades and all the accomplishments he had, which are limitless," said Giants owner Ron Toigo. "This is really about what Gordie meant to the Vancouver Giants and what the Vancouver Giants meant to Gordie."

The Giants will celebrate Howe's legacy in a pre-game video salute. Vancouver players will wear special jerseys featuring his name and famous No. 9, which the club will retire, and special pucks bearing his number will be used during the game.

Toigo credited Howe, who died in June at the age of 88, with giving the Giants "instant credibility" and helping them succeed quickly, along with late NHL player, coach and executive Pat Quinn, also a former Giants minority owner.

After starting up in 2001-02, the Giants won the Memorial Cup as the host team in 2007, reached the WHL final the same year, and captured the league crown the season before. Toigo hopes new general manager Glen Hanlon, first-year coach Jason McKee and the club's move to the smaller Langley Events Centre from the often cavernous Pacific Coliseum will rejuvenate the club.

Attendance has lagged as the Giants missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons.

"The building will be full," said Toigo. "It'll be loud. It'll be something our players haven't played in for some time, and I think the emotion of having that kind of a crowd behind you on a regular basis should help our players."

Hanlon, a former long-time coach whose clubs included the NHL's Washington Capitals and Belarusian men's national team, has assembled a roster designed to play a fast, skilled, entertaining and "nasty" game.

"We've hired a coach here that really believes in getting after the puck and playing quick hockey and playing modern hockey, and he's a young guy," said Hanlon.

McKee, 37, guided the Spruce Grove Saints three Alberta Junior Hockey League titles and five final berths in six seasons as coach and GM.

On the ice, the Giants are expected to be led by 18-year-old captain Tyler Benson, a 2016 Edmonton Oilers second-round draft choice who suffered an upper-body injury in a Vancouver pre-season game this year and battled health woes last season.

Veteran defenceman Dmitry Osipov and forwards Thomas Foster, Radovan Bondra and Ty Ronning are also expected to play prominent roles after returning from NHL camps. So is defenceman Darian Skeoch, acquired in a recent trade from Lethbridge.

But the Giants will be a predominantly young team.

"We've cleared some space for these kids to play valuable minutes - not just put the jersey on and lace up their skates and play three or four minutes," said Hanlon.

Notes — Howe's sons Murray and Marty are expected to attend the ceremony Friday before going to Saskatoon for the interment of Gordie's ashes beneath his statue there on Sunday. … Hanlon replaced former GM Scott Bonner, who joined the Sports Corporation player agency. … McKee was hired in June after Lorne Molleken was dismissed with two games left in his first season. … Benson, who was with Oiler prospects at the recent Young Stars tournament in Penticton, B.C., but could not play, is listed as day-to-day.