Emotional induction ceremony shows 1997-98 Eagles are still a team 21 years later

Mark Holick stood at the podium for several moments, unable to find the words or the composure to begin his induction speech. The 1997-98 South Surrey Eagles head coach was tasked with speaking on behalf of his team, who had just been inducted to the BC Hockey Hall of Fame, but something was missing.

Right around the 20th anniversary of the Eagles team winning their first National Championship, it was announced that they would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Penticton. A week later, tragedy struck as the team’s former owner Cliff Annable passed away suddenly, shocking everyone that knew him, including his friends and colleagues in the hockey world.

“He’s really special to me and our family, because he gave me a start,” said Holick. “I had zero head-coaching experience and he basically turned the keys over when [former head coach] Rick Lanz went to Tri-Cities. To have that faith in me, I owe him a lot. He believed in me and he believed in the team. He always provided us with the ability to have success. Whatever we needed, if it helped us have success and helped the boys perform, he had zero issues with it.

“When the Hall of Fame announcement happened, a week later he was gone. I’m glad he knew we were going in and I know he was looking forward to coming here and having a nice time. But that’s what life is I guess.”

On top of losing the team’s owner, former player Jeff Nabseth and equipment manager Gary Meredith also passed away since that memorable season.

Despite these losses, this weekend was a celebration for the team. After coming up short and losing in the championship game of the 1997 RBC Cup, the Eagles went back to the National Championship game the following year in Nanaimo and beat the Weyburn Red Wings to capture their first-ever title.

“They just wanted to have success,” said Holick. “They were a very close-knit group. I’ve been chasing that feeling since then. It’s so weird that it was the first year I was the coach and we win the whole thing and then you don’t get that anymore for a while. We had some success in other places, we had some good teams along the way at some of my stops, but you just don’t have that success because it’s so hard to attain. That’s why this group is so special.”

Although the induction ceremony was on Friday, the team got a chance to reconnect the night before at a local Penticton winery.

“Some guys I don’t think I’ve seen since the end of that season,” said Holick. “Everybody kind of goes their separate ways. Last night was fun to see some of the guys I haven’t seen in a while and catch up with some people. It was a lot of fun.”

Holick had an eight-year stint in the BCHL, coaching the Penticton Panthers, the Langley Thunder and then South Surrey. After leaving the league in 2002, he returned to coach the Vernon Vipers for one year in 2006-07.

“The BCHL is where I cut my teeth, where I started to make a living,” said Holick. “The majority of my coaching career was spent in Junior A hockey here in B.C. The BCHL has always been a special place for me. I’ve always been a big supporter of it. We live in South Surrey and go to a lot of Eagles games as an alum. We get to see some good hockey.”

After coaching in Europe the last two seasons, Holick returned to B.C. last year to be closer to his family. He’s now the head coach of Yale Hockey Academy in Abbotsford.

“We made the decision that I would try to find something and stay in the Lower Mainland,” he said. “[Yale Academy Coordinator] Billy Wilms was kind enough to talk to me about a position and things worked out great. I love it. I enjoy it. They’re great kids and we have a great staff.”

After those few moments where Holick couldn’t get the words out to start his speech on Friday, his team did what a team is supposed to do – they came together to support their teammate. His former players came to his side to pat him on the back or say an encouraging word and that’s when the coach regained his composure and was able to carry on.

21 years later, the 1997-98 Eagles are still a team and that’s what makes them so special.