With the 2020-21 regular season now behind us, it’s awards season for the BC Hockey League. The BCHL and its teams, as well as us here at the BCHLNetwork, have all released award winners in May.
The league itself recognized some of the top performers from the 2020-21 regular season but took a different route this year following what was a very different season. Rather than sticking to a more common awards format, the league announced winners for each of its five regional pods.
The pods based in Alberni Valley, Coquitlam, Chilliwack, Vernon, and Penticton were each given their own sets of award winners. The accolades included pod champions, leading scorer, most valuable player, top defenseman, top goalie, and top rookie.
After collecting a ballot from each of its writers, the BCHLNetwork compiled its own list of league-wide award winners. These distinctions had more of a traditional look to them, as we acknowledged the league’s MVP, top defenseman, top goalie, top rookie, and top coach.
From a Cranbrook Bucks perspective, I have crowned my own list of award winners, closely following the format of BCHLNetwork’s league recognitions. Before I get to my Bucks awards winners, I’d like to acknowledge that the team did release its own set of year-end awards.
NEWS: Bucks Announce Inaugural Season Team Awards
Full press release👇https://t.co/gi2Lal7Cvu
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) May 19, 2021
Included in Cranbrook’s team accolades was a community service award, a scholastic player of the year, and a coaches award, among others. The full list of awards and recipients can be found here. As for my list, here’s who stood out to me for the Bucks in their inaugural BCHL season.
Most valuable player: AJ Vasko
From the first game of the season to the last, Vasko was a leader in almost every way for Cranbrook. He was effective in all situations and gave a consistent effort every night.
Vasko got off to a hot start, beginning his BCHL career on a two-game goal-scoring streak. His second goal was the Bucks first-ever power-play goal, and helped them to their first regular season victory.
He finished the season tied for the team lead in goals and points. In 16 games, he managed five goals and four assists for nine points. Vasko’s value went beyond numbers, however, as he was an important player on both special teams units, as well as at even strength.
— BCHL (@BCHockeyLeague) May 8, 2021
Vasko scored in two of Cranbrook’s three wins this season, but the Bucks final win was a special night for himself. In a 5-4 win against Trail on May 7, Vasko tallied a hat-trick and added a pair of helpers for a five-point game.
On any given night, the Bucks seemed to go as far as Vasko would take them, and for that — he is my team MVP.
Runner-up: Zeth Kindrachuk
Despite missing the last six games of the season, Kindrachuk had himself quite the season. Midway through, it appeared he would lead the Bucks the way Vasko did down the stretch.
When Kindrachuk went down with his injury, his absence from the lineup was noticeable. For his work in the first 14 games of the season, Kindrachuk is my runner-up for team MVP.
Top forward: Kindrachuk
My runner-up for team MVP gets the nod as top forward for the Bucks in their inaugural season. Kindrachuk began the season on a team record four-game point streak, recording two goals and six points over that stretch.
Early in the season, it seemed most of Cranbrook’s offense went through Kindrachuk. Even when he wasn’t producing himself, the players around him were.
Kindrachuk ties it up at 13:12 of the 2nd period! pic.twitter.com/F3qeusCn7E
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) April 10, 2021
It didn’t seem to matter that he was younger and a little undersized compared to most of his opponents, Kindrachuk played a big game. His game was also responsible and mature beyond his time in the BCHL.
An offensive leader for Cranbrook, Kindrachuk recorded three goals and six assists for nine points in his 14 games. Those totals had him tied on the team in points, and tied for second on the team in assists.
Runner-up: Walker Gelbard
Despite only playing in 12 contests due to injury, Gelbard was the third Buck tied for the team lead with nine points. Although being the second-youngest player in the BCHL this season, Gelbard was not intimidated at all.
He was right there with Vasko and Kindrachuk as an offensive catalyst for Cranbrook. He started the season as a 16-year-old affiliate player but ended up a top-liner before suffering his season-ending ailment.
Top defenseman: Cam Kungle
An alternate captain for the pod season, Kungle was a natural leader for Cranbrook. Whether it be spearheading the offense or shutting things down defensively, he seemed to control a lot of what happened when he was on the ice.
Cam Kungle scores on the power play to tie the game at 1! pic.twitter.com/nOLubnYsif
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) April 20, 2021
Kungle was another Bucks player bit by the injury bug this year, limiting him to just 15 contests. Even while missing a quarter of the season, Kungle led Cranbrook defensemen with three goals. Included in that total was the Bucks’ first-ever game-winning goal.
Runner-up: Rhys Bentham
Bentham was an integral part of Cranbrook’s inaugural season. The first player on this list to play in all 20 games, he was both reliable and consistent.
Bentham tallied two goals and six points from the backend in his 20 contests, and scored the first short-handed goal in franchise history.
Rookie of the year: Gelbard
As the youngest player on the Bucks and second youngest in the league, Gelbard declared himself ready for the BCHL. As mentioned earlier in this article when I announced Gelbard as my runner-up for top forward, he finished tied for the team lead in points.
WHAT. A. SHOT. 😱🤯 pic.twitter.com/uB02WqCiwS
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) April 19, 2021
Despite suiting up for only 12 games due to injury, Gelbard notched two goals and nine points this season. It didn’t take him long to establish himself as a go-to offensive threat for the Bucks.
Just prior to his injury, Gelbard found himself playing with Vasko and Kindrachuk on Cranbrook’s top line. Not only was he unintimidated by playing in the BCHL for the first time, Gelbard was fearlessly aggressive in creating offense for his team.
Runner-up: Noah Leibl
It took Leibl a few games to find his stride offensively, but he found other ways to be effective. Early in the season, Leibl was given defensive responsibilities such as penalty-killing and protecting leads.
By the time the season came to a close, Leibl was tied with Vasko for the team lead in goals with five. Playing all 20 games for the Bucks, Leibl tallied six points overall, and contributed in all situations.
If I was to continue with the awards season theme, I would name the Cranbrook Bucks top goalie. Instead of naming just one, I’m going to acknowledge the work they did as a tandem.
Nathan Airey got the bulk of the starts for the Bucks, playing 13 games in the Penticton pod. It took Airey until his final start of the season to nab his first BCHL win, as he finished with a 1-11-0 record.
His record wasn’t indicative of his play though, as the 2003-born netminder definitely allowed Cranbrook to hang around against a couple of tough opponents. Airey carried a 4.04 goals-against-average, along with a .879 save percentage.
It just might be the greatest save in @CranbrookBucks franchise history, leading them to their first ever win
— BCHL (@BCHockeyLeague) April 5, 2021
Cranbrook’s other goaltender this season, 2001-born Jay Thomson, had a strong showing for the Bucks, going 2-5-0 in his eight appearances.
His 3.60 goals-against-average was the better of the two goalies, and it accompanied a .872 save percentage. Thomson was the first Bucks goaltender to win a regular season game, and is the only one to record a shutout.
While this list only includes a few players, the Bucks had strong showings from many others. One thing Cranbrook has to look forward to is that 20 of its 23 players from the Penticton pod are eligible to return next season.
The Bucks will look to use the valuable experienced gained in their inaugural season to find success in what should be a more “normal” second season in 2021-22.