The Prince George Spruce Kings magical playoff run from 2018 resonates with Ethan De Jong still to this day.
The 21-year-old from North Vancouver, BC quickly became the main offensive catalyst during that postseason run, amassing 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points in 24 games.
He credits the first-round, seven-game grind against the eventual RBC Cup champion Chilliwack Chiefs as the main motivator.
“That was by far the most memorable series ever. Down to game seven, down a goal in game seven, and then getting that goal to get the comeback going and just how gritty that series was. That was some of the most fun I have ever had playing hockey.”
De Jong’s shorthanded marker got the ball rolling for the Spruce Kings after they owned the Chiefs in the regular season.
Less than two minutes later, PG received the game-winner from an unlikely source as Jay Keranen, who scored exactly once during the regular season, handcuffed Chilliwack netminder Daniel Chenard to secure the series.
“We were playing well that whole game, we just couldn’t put anything past the guy so it was a relief to finally get one going there and then Keranen potted the next one so it was a pretty big confidence booster,” said De Jong.
“You need everybody on your team and obviously he wasn’t a big points guy, but he was always such a great defensive defenseman. (He was) always making the simple, hard play, and to see him step up and fire everyone up on the bench was pretty special. He was a key player for us.”
Clipping the Eagles wings
If a hostile seven-game series in the first round wasn’t enough to get your heart rate up, the Spruce Kings went the distance in the second round against the Surrey Eagles.
After a 9-1 thrashing in game one, which saw Kyle Johnson, Liam Watson-Brawn, and Sam Anzai score two goals each, PG found itself down to its last breath after dropping three consecutive matches against the Eagles.
Even though the Spruce Kings had their backs up against the wall, according to De Jong, they never wavered.
“We just had a subtle confidence about us each game knowing we could beat them and we thought in that second game we had played really well but the bounces didn’t go our way. But the big thing for us was winning in their rink, we never had any success at the South Surrey Arena so as soon as we won one there, that really boosted the confidence.”
“We didn’t grip the sticks too hard, we knew how to play,”
Heading into that sixth game, Spruce Kings bench boss Adam Maglio made a few changes ahead of the contest.
“I remember when we always played there, we would get two locker rooms because they weren’t that big. Usually, we put the defense in the far one and the forwards in the near one, and Mags decided to switch that up and I guess it worked out. It was a bit of a shocker.”
Due to the 2-2-1-1-1 structure of the series, De Jong sensed fatigue was setting in for Surrey. The Eagles predominantly ran with their top two lines and four defensemen, included Johnny Wesley, Ty Westgard, Ryan Brushett, Jackson Ross, and Cody Schiavon.
“We were used to travelling seven hours away for road games and we had that sort of advantage. Plus, we had that tiny rink at home in the regular season where we didn’t really lose much, so we were confident and we had that growing from the Chilliwack series.”
Hail the RMCA
During the playoff run, the Spruce Kings were assisted by their passionate fan base, selling out a number of games in the 2,112 capacity Rolling Mix Concrete Arena, one of the oldest barns in the BCHL.
The tight corners, smaller rink size, and intimidating crowd help give the Trees a psychological advantage every time.
“Oh yeah, we felt we had a 1-0 lead once the game started and I forget which game it was, but I think we had (more) fans than we were supposed to put in there. It looked closer to 2,500 (fans), but it was insane when we scored. You couldn’t hear your teammate on the bench for at least two minutes afterward,” said De Jong.
“I know it sucked for some of the Eagles players because Desi Burgart, who I know (personally), said it sucked coming up there (to RCMA).”
The fan support continued to ramp up for the Spruce Kings once they hit the Fred Page Cup final against the Wenatchee Wild. A rally was held in Prince George the day the team headed to Washington state.
“We were loading the bus and it was kind of like farewell from the fans. They all came to the Rolling Mix, there was a big crowd, and teachers brought their students who had good luck signs for us. It was truly incredible and it made it so good playing for the fans.”
Running with the Bobcats
After falling to the Wild in five games, De Jong was the Spruce Kings leading playoff scorer, which saw him head off to Quinnipiac University a year earlier than expected.
It’s a decision De Jong doesn’t regret, even though he would have been an integral member of the Spruce Kings team that won the Fred Page Cup and Doyle Cup in 2019.
“My buddies like Benny (Poisson) kind of poke fun at me, telling me about that, saying I should have waited another year. But my freshman year at Quinnipiac was just another one of those great years where we were really successful – just like the Spruce Kings – we went to the (NCAA Division I) tournament.”
“We didn’t quite make it to the Frozen Four but I don’t regret it. It would have been cool to have been on that (Spruce Kings) team and make it to the National Junior A Championship, but playing here at Quinnipiac and going to the tournament was one of the best moments of my career.”
The Bobcats went 14-6-2 in the East Coast Athletic Conference during the 2018-19 season, losing in the regional final to the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
De Jong’s freshman year was a smashing success statistically as well. He posted 25 points in 38 games.
In 81 career NCAA games, the 21-year-old now has 53 points and was recently named the ECAC second star of the week, while his teammate Odeen Tufto took the top honours.
Quinnipiac is a private university located in Hamden, Connecticut and while it is not an Ivy League school, De Jong’s favourite team to the lineup against is the Yale Bulldogs.
“They are probably a ten-minute drive from here and it’s probably the craziest atmosphere you will ever be in. It’s better than an NHL atmosphere honestly, students are going crazy and there are lineups starting at 9am at our rink and tickets for our student section usually sell out within minutes. It’s incredible and you can’t think (about it) too much.”
De Jong is also playing on the Bobcats with another former Spruce Kings teammate in Nick Bochen.