Photo credit: Garrett James Photography
By Kai Farenholtz
To say that there was a lot on the line in terms of rekindling the spirit and presence of the Langley Rivermen organization at the beginning of the 2021-22 season would be a vast understatement. Having taken a hiatus during the pod season the year prior due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a void within the community. When the Rivermen returned to the George Preston Recreation Centre in the latter half of 2021, friends, family and teammates rejoiced.
This was a very different Rivermen team than the last one that took the ice. There were only four returning players from the 2019-20 squad. There were 11 rookies, but there were also five distinguished 20-year-olds – Max Bulawka, Tyler Schleppe, Stephen Sielsky, Ryan Upson and Riley Wallack.
At the beginning of the season, the team did not have any players with college commitments. Outside of the group of 20-year-olds, the roster did not have much experience in the league and not many thought they would make a serious run this year.
That sentiment was not something that permeated within the Rivermen dressing room.
“I knew we had an unreal team,” said Langley’s co-captain Stephen Sielsky, a defenceman playing for his hometown team.
Each of the 2001-born Rivermen carries their own unique story on how they ended up in Langley. You have Sielsky and Wallack who have been with the team since 2018. They even played together on the Cowichan Valley Capitals during the pod season when they were on loan. During their time in Cowichan, they played alongside Max Bulawka, who would eventually become a valuable piece to Langley’s top-six after an off-season acquisition.
“Going over there and getting to meet Max, it was a great experience,” said Sielsky. “He’s a great guy. He’s a great leader and he’s just got a great work ethic.”
Wallack, on the other hand, appreciates his early time alongside Bulawka because it expanded their chemistry, making them a threat out of the gates once they were both suiting up for the Rivermen.
The other two did not have this prior experience together like the aforementioned trio, but this did not stop them from immediately gelling with the rest of the group. Schleppe is in his fourth BCHL campaign, previously playing for the Coquitlam Express and the Prince George Spruce Kings, where he a Fred Page Cup as a rookie in 2019. Upson is in his third year in the league, previously suiting up for the Penticton Vees and West Kelowna Warriors.
These five individuals connected instantly and grew a bond that extends far beyond the rink. To start the season, they all shared a common goal – to secure a college commitment and to blow away expectations surrounding the franchise.
If you ask them, starting the year off without any college commitments drew everyone closer.
“We all competed for each other,” said Bulawka. “There were no egos, no committed players. Everyone knew that the best way to get recognized was to win and that team success leads to personal success. We all play for each other.”
Before they knew it, as the Rivermen began the year with flurries of goals and victories, the phones began to ring. First off the list was Schleppe, who opened up the campaign with a display of goal-scoring prowess combined with a sizeable frame. He signed his commitment with Ferris State University at the end of November. Two weeks later, co-captain Wallack would commit to Long Island University. After the new year, Upson would ink his commitment to Bentley University and Bulawka recently signed on with NCAA Division III program Hamilton College.
The only one of the group that has yet to commit is Sielsky, but that does not mean he gets any less admiration or respect from his teammates.
“Everyone has something different,” said Upson. “Sielsky, for example, he’s an unbelievable defensive defenseman. He blocks tons of shots. Just watching those guys every day, it definitely helps. I can add some of that to my game.”
“I know a lot of younger guys look up to Sielsky,” added Wallack. “He’s blocking shots every game. It seems like he’s blocking 30 a game.”
It wasn’t just the players who were readjusting to new surroundings after a year off. The Rivermen also introduced a new head coach in Burt Henderson, who had previously worked with several players on the roster when he was the bench boss of the Junior B Langley Trappers.
He immediately noticed the impact his group of 20-year-olds could have, not just among each other, but with the whole team. In his eyes, they take their leadership wherever they go, whether that be in the gym, on the bus or on the ferry.
“I feel that they’ve put the time into their growth, not only as players, but also as individuals,” said Henderson. “It’s about taking that next step and I think they’re all ready to be really good individuals and players at the next level,”
After a strong start to the regular season which saw the team near or at the top of the Coastal Conference standings for most of the year, the Rivermen dealt with significant injuries down the stretch and eventually finished in fourth place.
Once again, many would count them out, but just as they have been doing all year, they snapped those beliefs and projections into bite-sized crumbs. The Rivermen beat the Victoria Grizzlies in the first round and recently dispatched the first-place Alberni Valley Bulldogs in round two, all while only dropping a combined three games throughout both series to reach the franchise’s first Conference Finals appearance.
“Looking forward, hopefully we can make it all the way to the finals and win,” said Schleppe. “I think that would be really exciting for us and especially the younger guys that are in their first or second year.”
You cannot pinpoint this team’s success to only one player. Whether it be the consistent offensive output of Schleppe, Upson and Max Dukovac, the goal-scoring tandem of Wallack and Bulawka or the shutdown performances from Sielsky and rookie goaltender Ajeet Gundarah, all you can say is that this is a group of players that will do whatever it takes to leave their names in the BCHL history books and, for the 2001-born players, finish their careers off on the ultimate high note.