Chilliwack has had a small connection to the state of Michigan over the years. A handful of players have come from Michigan to play for the Chiefs, from Joey Larson and Trevor Adams to Ben Israel.
There were also two players who helped recruit from Michigan to Chilliwack in the early days of the franchise, which paved the road for the players of recent years. One of those who directed players to the Fraser Valley was Steve Balint.
The other player was Balint’s teammate, Neeco Belanger. Belanger played one season with the Chiefs in Chilliwack and one season in Langley. I caught up with the Marquette, Michigan native to talk about his time with the Chiefs and playing NCAA Division III hockey.
Eric Clarke: How were you recruited by the Chilliwack Chiefs?
Neeco Belanger: Through Mark Olver. He and I came up together because his brother Darin played for Chilliwack. Mark lived at my house in high school and we played midget AAA together.
EC: There was controversy with Olver being released by the Chiefs on the eve of the 2005-06 season. Who convinced you to stay and play the season out?
NB: I think there was just confusion on what was happening at the time. I was 18 and had very little guidance at that time as I was over 36 hours from home. It was a moment I look back to this day and wish I would have stuck by Mark’s side and left, despite the team (we had). Harvey Smyl and the players were amazing to play with.
EC: After the 2005-06 season, the Chiefs moved to Langley, and you were drafted by your hometown Marquette Rangers of the North American Hockey League. What drove your decision of going to play in the NAHL in 2006?
NB: It actually started with me being half a credit short for the (NCAA) Clearinghouse and needed to gain that credit from someone from the high school I graduated from. I had to go to a board meeting and I needed to be back home. Adding to that was a brand new junior A team right in my hometown.
I talked to Walt Kyle – who was Northern Michigan University’s coach – and he suggested working on my offense in the (North American) league.
So I jumped back home for a season, where I was able to lead my team in points and bring that back to Chilliwack the following season. Being in front of my friends and family back home was a chance that would have been hard to pass up.
EC: In 2007-08 you came back to the Chiefs, this time in Langley where you put up 20 goals in your final season. Was it an easy transition back to the team?
NB: It was. Harvey and (assistant coach Barry) Wolff made it easy to slide right back in. The Chiefs establishment is top-notch and they treat their players very well.
EC: How was your experience in Chilliwack and Langley?
NB: Top notch from the billets to the cities, to the organization. I made so many memories and friendships that will last forever.
EC: You played four and a half years of NCAA Division III hockey at Lindenwood University in St. Louis. How was your transition to college from the BCHL?
NB: It was a very good transition. Since I (was) already living away from home in Chilliwack, I was adjusted to living away from home. Hockey-wise I adapted very well and was fortunate to win back-to-back national championships (in) my first two years. The competitiveness and conditioning from the Chiefs organization prepared me well for college.
EC: After Lindenwood, you transferred to Northern Michigan University. What was that transition like?
NB: It was seamless.
EC: After Northern Michigan, you started playing in the Great Lakes Hockey League and have for a handful of different teams over the last five seasons. What was it like going from college to a semi-pro league?
NB: It was nice to be back in a league where there is a more physical nature to the game.
EC: Do you plan on rejoining the GLHL once the pandemic ends?
NB: I do! We have been practicing on ponds since our ice arenas were shut down by the Governor of Michigan due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Belanger played 2005-06 with the Chiefs, putting up 18 points and 134 penalty minutes. The next season, he led the Marquette Rangers of the NAHL with 53 points and 201 penalty minutes. Belanger returned to the Chiefs for the 2006-07 season and posted 40 points and 138 penalty minutes.
After Langley, Belanger played five seasons at Lindenwood University in the ACHA and won NCAA Division III national championships in 2008 and 2009. He put up 156 points in 147 games with the Lions.
During the 2012-13 season, Belanger transferred to Northern Michigan University. He played a season and a half at NMU and finished with 32 points in 20 games.
Currently, Belanger plays in the GLHL with the Marquette Mutineers. Last season, he had 19 points in 13 games. Belanger also works for the state representative for the Upper Peninsula region in Michigan, where he resides with his wife and daughter.