Photo credit: Island Images Photography
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Whistler, B.C. is known as a ski and snowboard town. It is known for mountain biking. It is known for tourism.
What it is not known for is being a hockey hotbed.
There has never been an NHL player to come from the town. If you look at rosters from pro or junior leagues across the globe, you would be hard pressed to find many names with Whistler listed as their hometown, which is not entirely surprising for a city with a population of just over 13,000 permanent residents.
Despite that, Nanaimo Clippers forward Kai Daniells, who was born and raised in Whistler, grew up with a passion for the game. A passion that grew into a hobby, that grew into a skill, that grew into a way of life.
Daniells started playing organized hockey from a young age, around four or five years old, but he really found that passion outside of the structured version of the game.
“The best part of growing up playing hockey in Whistler was that there was always open ice available,” he said. “I would be out there playing shinny with my dad and friends for hours. It really taught me the fun of the game from a young age.”
“It was definitely different. It’s obviously a ski town, but there are a select few individuals in town that love hockey and I was one. I’m grateful for the people that were there to support me and coach me.”
Before long, Daniells and his family recognized the skill he possessed on the ice. They also recognized that he needed to move away from Whistler to find a hockey home where he would get more opportunities to hone his skills and play against top competition.
That’s when he made the move to the Delta Hockey Academy.
Daniells would spend four years in Delta from 2016 to 2020, moving up the ladder each year through their program. According to the 19-year-old, it was the best time of his life. He made lifelong friends, got to experience the school/hockey lifestyle and played on some talented teams.
He also received tutelage from some experienced coaches, including a former BCHLer who holds the record as the league’s all-time leading scorer – Shane Kuss.
Kuss was coaching Delta’s Bantam team at the time and the two crossed paths during Daniells’ second season there. Kuss played four seasons in the BCHL with the Surrey Eagles from 1993 to 1997, put up 418 points in 238 regular-season games and won a Fred Page Cup championship his final year in the league.
Needless to say, he was able to teach Daniells a thing or two during that season.
“He helped teach me the team aspect of the game, as well as some tips and tricks in the offensive zone,” said Daniells. “He was a great guy to learn from, especially having played in the BCHL himself. He was a really good teacher for me.”
By the fall of 2020, at 17 years old, Daniells was ready to take the next step in his career and that was the BCHL. Despite the pandemic significantly cutting into his rookie campaign and the unique format of the pod season, he still used his time in practice and in games as a learning experience. It seems to have worked for him because the next year is when he really took off.
Daniells became one of the go-to guys offensively for Nanaimo in 2021-22 and finished the year with 42 points in 54 games, good enough for fourth in team scoring. His 22 goals on the year were the third most among Clippers players.
“That was when I really started to grasp the whole concept of junior hockey and started to enjoy it much more,” said Daniells. “In the first half of the year, I was still adjusting to everything, but in the second half, I found some great chemistry with my linemates and our team really clicked.”
Saying the Clippers clicked late in the 2021-22 campaign is an understatement. The team finished as the number-three seed in the Coastal Conference, but managed to rip off 12 straight wins to sweep their first three playoff series and book a spot in the league final. They ultimately lost that series to the Penticton Vees, but the experience still left a lasting impact on Daniells and his returning teammates.
“It was super special,” he said. “It created bonds for life over that period of time, given what we accomplished. It’s too bad it didn’t work out, but the team this year, we have a lot of guys that came back, and we’re playing for those 20-year-old guys that we had on the team last year.”
So far so good. The Clippers are at the top of the Coastal Conference standings with an 11-2-0 record through 13 games, having recently beat the second-place Surrey Eagles last weekend. From a personal standpoint, Daniells is on pace to easily surpass his point total from last year. He currently sits tied for fourth in BCHL scoring with 20 points and is tied for the third-most goals with 10, good enough to earn 3rd Star of the Month honours for October.
His strong season has yet to come with a scholarship announcement to an NCAA Division I program, but given the numbers he has put up the last two years, it seems like just a matter of time.
“It’s cliché, but you want to find the best balance of school and hockey,” he said. “It’s about school, hockey and opportunity. I’m just in the middle of figuring that out right now and hopefully I’ll get something done soon.”
Whether it’s the BCHL, the NCAA or beyond, it all goes back to those early days playing shinny with family and friends. That’s where the passion began and it carries on to this day. Only time will tell how far it takes him.