Hockey players these days are used to being away from home long before they reach the junior ranks, but Braden Blace definitely made the move earlier than most.
The pride of Crofton, a defenceman with the B.C. Hockey League’s Alberni Valley Bulldogs, was still just 12 years old, “a big thing for me at that point,” he said, when he went to the Lower Mainland to begin Grade 8 and play at the Delta Hockey Academy.
“My cousin Corson Hopwo went there two years before and he still was when I went,” explained Blace, now 18, reflecting back on the move.
Having Hopwo there made the adjustment somewhat easier, but Blace still didn’t know a soul otherwise that was an uneasy feeling for a while at such a young age.
“The first week was a bit tough for me, being away from home,” he conceded. “But it was nice, a good place to play. It was definitely a good experience.”
Blace spent two seasons at Delta, came back to the Island for his Grade 10 year at Belmont Secondary School with the Pacific Coast Hockey Academy, returned to Delta in Grade 11 and finished Grade 12 at Cowichan Secondary School, starting his third year midget with the Victoria Cougars in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League before joining the Bulldogs for the pod season of April and May 2021.
Blace decided it was time to move away from academy hockey for his final year in high school.
“Academy hockey is hard on the wallet, for sure,” he laughed. “I didn’t think it was worth it playing another year of academy hockey.”
Nonetheless, “it was definitely great to go to that academy (Delta),” Blace said. “That’s where my game took that next step I needed to get better as a hockey player.”
To say Blace is well-travelled at this point would be an understatement, but he’s feeling right at home now with the Bulldogs and settling in as a BCHL regular despite the obvious uncertainties and schedule interruptions since COVID.
In fact, Blace was scheduled to play in the BCHL’s all-star tournament on Jan. 15 in Penticton, but that’s been cancelled due to COVID. It would have been nice to play in the game, but Blace is still honoured with his selection.
“That was awesome, not expecting that at all,” he said.
Ironically, Blace spent many of his formative seasons in hockey flip-flopping between forward and defence until the latter finally became his primary position.
“I like being able to read the play more,” he said about finally settling on defence. “I like to chip in offensively when I can, but mainly focus on my D zone.”
An additional boost for Blace before becoming a Bulldog came from playing for Team B.C. in the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships in Whitehorse, Yukon during May of 2019. He has Squamish Nation ancestry on his dad’s side that made him eligible for selection.
Three days of tryouts were held in Abbotsford and Blace made the cut for the team from the elite Indigenous players invited to attend. Blace and the team went on to claim the bronze medal at the tournament.
“That was an awesome experience with basically a whole bunch of new friends you had to meet,” he said.
Making the jump to the BCHL was delayed by COVID in late 2020 before teams finally got going in a shortened campaign over two months in 2021.
Blace scored his first BCHL goal against Cowichan Valley on April 17, 2021.
“I was on the blueline,” he recalled. “I was just trying to shoot for the net, honestly. It went in.”
Blace finished with that one goal and 10 assists in 19 games for the Bulldogs during the pod season.
“I was playing decent minutes which I didn’t expect going into it,” he said. “Getting the confidence up, it really helped me. Using that confidence into this year it really helped me, too.”
Through 27 games in the 2021-22 regular season, Blace has also put up a goal and 10 assists.
He’s thrilled to be part of the Bulldogs organization under the direction of head coach Joe Martin.
“It’s a great top-notch team, top-notch organization,” he enthused. “Great group of guys, nothing but great things to say.”
Blace also has a strong bond with assistant coach Wacey Rabbit, who oversees the defence corps.
“Love him, he’s a funny guy,” chuckled Blace.
With two more seasons of eligibility remaining in junior, Blace has that as a back-up plan in case future hockey options don’t work out right away in consultation with U.S. college representatives.
“I’m hoping to get a college hockey scholarship, hopefully by the end of the season, honestly,” he confided.