JUDIQUE: The new head coach of the Cape Breton West Islanders says he’s looking to build on the already established foundation to the organization and has high expectations for the team which has 13 returning players.

Kyle Gillies, who is a familiar face around the Islanders organization, has taken over the reins of the Port Hood-based Nova Scotia Under-18 Major Hockey League team.

Originally from Port Hood, Gillies played his minor hockey in Port Hood and Port Hawkesbury and as a highlight from his minor career, played on the first Midget team out of Cape Breton, Rod’s Eagles, before playing Jr. A with the Bulldogs under Danny Barry in Antigonish.

While playing for the Bulldogs, he graduated from StFX University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Kinetics, followed by his Bachelor of Education, and has been teaching for the last 20 years. He currently lives in Judique with his wife and three kids.

As Gillies makes the jump to head coach of the Islanders, he does so after a decade long stint as the team’s assistant coach.

“This may be my first year as head coach, but I’ve been intimately involved for the last 10 seasons,” Gillies told The Reporter. “It was always in the back of my mind, but I always thought it was a job for a young, up and coming coach who maybe wanted to make a career out of coaching or take it to the next level.”

After last year’s bench boss, Nick MacNeil, made the jump to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Gillies said the opportunity presented itself. He felt as though he was ready after learning from the high-caliber coaches over the years including; Sean Donovan, who’s now coaching with the StFX X-Men; Troy Chiasson, who’s the head coach of the Sydney Rush; Kyle ‘Duke’ MacDonald, when they won nationals together; Willie MacDonald the head coach in Pictou; Garrett Lambke, who’s now an assistant coach in Pictou; and of course MacNeil.

“At the end of the day, I just had so many good people to hang out with and learn from, and steal good ideas from,” he said. “And I’m really confident going into the position, knowing the foundation has already been set, and hopefully I can add to it.”

With a family atmosphere, he has a great crew to draw from and wouldn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call any one of his former coaching colleagues to pick their brain on a hockey-related question.

The Islanders finished the 2020-21 season, with a shortened 29 game season, tied for fifth with Cole Harbour Pro Hockey Life with a 12-13-4-0 record.

“We started the playoffs and we won the series with the valley, and then as soon as that was over, the league had to shut down,” Gillies said. “We were definitely cut short at different times throughout the year, and then we’d get a green light to play again. It was a pretty choppy season.”

He suggested while their season last year was impacted by COVID-19, they were lucky enough in their area that they were still able to practice as a team, and suggested everyone is excited to get back to normal.

“We did get on the ice and kept our regular routine,” Gillies said. “Although the games were cut short, it really felt like a full season, at the end of the day, and we had over 100 practices under our belt too.”

As for how the team is looking for the 2021-22 season, Gillies suggested the Islanders have a really good mix of rookies, sophomore and third year players.

“From my experience, you need a good batch of third year players, that come back and contribute,” he said. “What really hurt us this year at the start, as far as the standings are concerned, we had an early bird tournament at the start of the year, and we were still finalizing our team over that weekend, and only had one practice at our home rink leading up to it, so we were kind of behind the eight ball.”

They Islanders went on to play four games in two days, and unfortunately went 0-4, and they ended up counting the points.

“On a good note, I was looking at the stats and the top two teams in the league, so far this year have three losses,” Gillies said. “And we’ve given them two of them. So we’ve played some really tough teams at the start of the year, and we’re at 500-hockey if you don’t count that early bird tournament.”

Over the next few weeks, he’s hoping the team will be able to establish an offensive presence, but he’s not overly worried yet, as it’s still early in the season and they’re still finding their chemistry.

This season, this Islanders are being lead by their captain, Port Hawkesbury’s own Ryan Hayes, who turned some heads after an exceptional camp in Bathurst.

“In my opinion, he probably plays the game harder than any other player in the league,” Gillies said. “It’s very hard to match his toughness and his on-ice presence, you’re always aware when he’s on the ice, he looks after everybody, and does his job well.”

The Islanders are splitting home and away assistant captains between Richmond County’s Cadyn Power and Ryan Digout.

“They are both third year players and are in the top two of our scoring so far this season,” Gillies said. “So they’ve immediately made an impact on the team and am stepping up, and have gotten a bigger role offensively, compared to the previous two years where they had more of an energy role.”

Another member of the Islander’s core is Cheticamp’s Landon MacIntosh.

“For the sheer distance that Landon puts in every week, that shows us his dedication to the team, he’s a quite guy and is very classy and doesn’t let too much rattle him,” Gillies said. “He lets his playing do the taking, and personifies that, and keeps the bench and room under control.”

Rounding out the leadership group is Boylston’s Jacob Cook.

“His hockey IQ puts him above and beyond a lot of players in the league,” Gillies said. “He doesn’t get too worked up but he’s very passionate about winning and his personality shines through during the game.”

He’s hoping the extra time spent together last year will transition to a more developed, in-tune and experienced team this year.

“I believe we had upwards of 13 players that have returned to the team from at least Jr. A camps, and had six players at QMJHL camps last summer, which includes every position,” Gillies said. “It’s a nice mix all throughout the lineup, and they will certainly show the way for the younger players, and let the new faces understand what our culture is all about, and what it takes to play at the next level.”

Inverness’ Kevin Walker, who participated in Charlottetown Islanders training camp, departed to maintain his eligibility within the NCAA.

Ray MacKinnon with Blainville-Boisbriand along with Hayes of Acadie-Bathurst were among their team’s final round of cuts.

Leyton Stewart found himself gaining experience in Quebec, Tully Grant suited up in Rouyn-Noranda, while Jack Milner attended camp in Halifax.

As for the new faces to the team, Gillies advised Grant, who is a second year player, joins the team from Notre Dame Academy in Alberta.

Havre Boucher’s Riley Sampson, who is a product of the Novas has six points in 10 games.

“He’s tied for leading the team in scoring,” he said. “He’s having an exceptional year.”

Other alumni of the Nova program to join the Islanders this season are Cohen Pictou and Campbell MacIntyre.

Rounding out the new faces are five prospects from the Highlanders organization including; Port Hood’s Colin Vanzutphen; Sherbrooke’s Logan MacGrath; Havre Boucher’s Jack Taylor; Port Hawkesbury’s Leo MacLean and Addington Forks’ Cole Goss.

“Which is a great feather in the cap to the Highlanders. The proof is in the pudding, they’re doing a good job,” Gillies said. “It makes our job that much easier, they’ve either all played with each other or at least against each other at some point of their minor hockey careers.”

The cool thing he said is, 10 years ago, when he first started coaching, these kids would have only been five-years-old and remembers a lot of them attending the games as kids.

As the province has officially moved into Phase 5, the Cape Breton West Islanders are welcoming their fans back to the Al MacInnis Sports Centre full force as long as they’re fully vaccinated and host the Kohltech Valley Wildcats on Oct. 16-17.