Every time Dave Lowry took the reins as head coach in the Western Hockey League, he has made his team better. Now in his first season as an assistant with the Winnipeg Jets, Lowry enjoyed his longest tenure as a WHL bench boss in Victoria (2012-17), where he helped a struggling franchise mature into a team that fully expects to be a factor in the postseason every spring.
Before they became the Royals, the Chilliwack Bruins were an expansion franchise that joined the WHL in 2006-07. Though they qualified for the playoffs in four of their five seasons in Chilliwack, they never won a series and only eclipsed the 30-win mark twice. The club relocated to Victoria for the 2011-12 season and played to similar results.
Guided by head coach and general manager Marc Habscheid, who held that dual role for the final two seasons in Chilliwack and the inaugural season in Victoria (2009-12), the Royals posted just 24 wins in their first campaign on Vancouver Island.
Changes were set in motion after the Kamloops Blazers swept the Royals in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.
Victoria first parted ways with Habscheid and hired Cam Hope as their new general manager. The Edmonton, Alberta native was part of the New York Rangers’ management group from 2004-11, including as assistant general manager from 2007-11. Hope then took a big swing by bringing in Lowry as the team’s head coach. Lowry arrived with an impressive résumé after a successful 19-year career in the NHL.
Before he joined the Royals, Lowry was an assistant with the Calgary Flames (2009-12), where he had played for four seasons (2000-04), including two as captain (2000-02). The former London Knights’ captain first turned to coaching with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen in 2005-06 as an assistant (2005-07) and then as an associate (2007-08). He earned his first head coaching job with the Hitmen in 2008-09, taking a stacked team to the Ed Chynoweth Cup Final after 59 regular-season wins.
Together, Hope and Lowry set out to turn a team that was just happy to make the playoffs into one that expected to be there and succeed.
The Royals Way
It is often said that teams take on the personality of their coach, and that was certainly the case for the Royals.
Under Lowry, the Royals’ players quickly took on his understated and businesslike approach. Rarely known to say much to stir the pot, Victoria never took stock in outside expectations, opting to let their play on the ice do the talking.
At the outset of each season, the Royals were rarely predicted to be at or near the top of the Western Conference based on their talent on paper. The difference was Lowry’s knack to devise systems and make tactical decisions that emphasized the strengths of his team and his ability as a motivator to convince his players to make personal sacrifices for the greater good of the team.
A Royals’ lineup rarely struck fear into opponents with sheer skill level, so Lowry’s squads made sure that they were tough to play against due to their physical edge and were confident in their ability to lock down close low scoring games.
Known for his coy relationship with the media, Lowry was not afraid to be tough on players internally when called for but was fair. In turn, his teams responded by achieving results that were perhaps greater than the sum of their parts.
In the absence of a true game-breaker up front, a team must have strong goaltending to fall back on, which the Royals have always had.
Czech import netminder Patrik Polivka won 56 games in 96 appearances with seven shutouts over two seasons (2012-14) while being pushed during both campaigns by Coleman Vollrath, who saw action in 61 games over those two seasons. When Polivka moved on, Vollrath took the baton as the starter and registered 60 wins with seven shutouts over the next two seasons (2014-16). For his career, the Calgary, AB product won 86 games in 165 appearances.
Similar to when Vollrath created internal competition for Polivka, Griffen Outhouse stormed onto the scene as a rookie in 2015-16, beginning one of the winningest careers for a goaltender in WHL history for Outhouse, who finished with 114 career victories across four seasons (2015-19).
The presence of top-end goaltending allowed Lowry’s Royals teams to hit the ice with the confidence they needed play their game, knowing that their masked men were going to keep them in virtually every game.
In Lowry’s first season behind the Royals’ bench, the team won 35 games (77 points), a sharp uptick from their 55 points the season before. Winger Jamie Crooks led the Royals in goals in the team’s first two seasons in Victoria, potting 33 in his overage season under Lowry after scoring 37 in 2011-12. Russian winger Alex Gogolev led the team with 65 points in his only season in Victoria in 2012-13.
Beyond Gogolev, who played in just 49 games, the Royals did not possess another point-per-game player but received offensive contributions at key times from every part of the lineup, which was a regular trait of Lowry’s teams.
Lacking the ability to outscore opponents on a regular basis, a strong defence was always key in Victoria. The 2012-13 team featured Keegan Kanzig in his draft campaign, along with rookies Joe Hicketts and future team captain Ryan Gagnon. Kanzig, who brought that physical edge the Royals were looking for, as evidenced by his 159 penalty minutes, later became a third-round pick of the Calgary Flames in the 2013 NHL Draft.
The Royals again fell to Kamloops in the first round of the postseason but were able to extend the series to six games.
Raising The Bar
The first major breakthrough of the Lowry era was during the following 2013-14 season when the Royals won 48 games and finished with 100 points for the first time in (Bruins/Royals) franchise history. In just two campaigns, the Royals had doubled their regular-season win total and entered the playoffs as a favourite for the first time.
Winger Brandon Magee registered a career-high 67 points, and Austin Carroll led the team with his 34 goals. The defense added future Los Angeles Kings’ prospect Chaz Reddekopp to complement Gagnon, and future Detroit Red Wings rearguard Hicketts, who equaled his totals of six goals and 24 points from the previous season, this time in just 36 games.
Goaltenders Polivka and Vollrath formed a formidable tandem in the crease. Polivka won 28 games for the second straight season with five shutouts, and Vollrath posted a 2.29 goals against average in 34 games.
The Royals broke new ground in the playoffs, sweeping the Spokane Chiefs for their first-ever series victory. The ride ended there, however, as the high-flying Portland Winterhawks upended the Royals in five games in the second round.
Hope was presented the Lloyd Saunders Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s Executive of the Year at season’s end, and Lowry earned his first WHL Coach of the Year award.
Lowry’s third season behind the bench brought similar results with a second-place finish in the division, followed by a second-round playoff exit.
Carroll led the way offensively with 38 goals and 77 points, while Hicketts became a bonafide star on the back end, with 12 goals and 64 points in 62 games. He also became the first current Royals player to play at the World Junior Championship, winning gold with Team Canada in his first of two trips. Lowry joined Hicketts at the WJC in Toronto, ON and Montreal, QC, serving as an assistant coach under Canadian head coach Benoit Groulx.
The Royals also acquired forwards Alex Forsberg and 2013 Edmonton Oilers’ draft pick Greg Chase in separate trades to boost the offense, and each produced at a near point-per-game pace.
Victoria returned to the second round of the playoffs after ousting the Prince George Cougars in the opening round before running into the eventual WHL champion Kelowna Rockets in the second round in the early days of what would become a fierce rivalry.
High Water Mark
The Royals achieved another milestone in Lowry’s fourth season at the helm in 2015-16.
The combination of Victoria’s team-first attitude and the deepest forward unit the franchise had ever possessed resulted in the Royals winning 50 games for the first and only time to date on their way to the franchise’s first Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s regular-season champion.
The biggest strength of that squad was down the middle with a trio of centreman who shared the offence. Forsberg emerged as the team’s leading scorer with 91 points in his overage season, while the dynamic duo of Tyler Soy and Matthew Phillips burst onto the scene and made strong cases in their draft-eligible seasons.
Soy deposited a team-high 46 goals, which convinced the Anaheim Ducks to take him in the seventh round of the ensuing 2016 NHL Draft, while Phillips found the back of the net 37 times as a WHL rookie, which was enough for the Calgary Flames to select him in the sixth round.
Lowry and Hicketts again represented Canada at the WJC, this time in Helsinki, Finland. Canada promoted Lowry to head coach, and Hicketts was an alternate captain, as the team’s tournament ended in a disappointing quarterfinal loss.
Typical of the Royals after Lowry arrived, the squad was backstopped by outstanding goaltending. Vollrath turned in a strong overage season with a 2.40 GAA and 32 wins in 51 games. Outhouse played his way onto the team out of training camp and pushed Vollrath all season, ending up with 27 regular-season appearances and 18 wins to go along with a sparkling 1.82 GAA and a .937 save percentage.
Prior to the 2015-16 season, the Royals hired Lynden Sammartino as their goaltending coach. He struck the right notes with Vorrath and Outhouse in his first season with the team. He worked closely with Outhouse for his entire WHL career, and remains with the club today.
Though the Royals grew up a great deal and achieved great regular-season success under Lowry, the playoffs were the one nut that they were unable to crack. Victoria never missed the playoffs under Lowry’s guidance, but they also never advanced past the second round.
No playoff disappointment was more painful than in 2016.
After their 106-point regular season, the Royals again dispatched Spokane in six games in the first round, setting up a showdown with rival Kelowna in the second round. That Rockets team featured future Calgary Flames’ forward Dillon Dube and finished a close second to the Royals in the B.C. Division in the regular season, with 48 wins and 100 points.
The Royals held serve at home, opening with a pair of one-goal wins at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre and headed to Kelowna with a 2-0 series lead. Backed by their home crowd at Prospera Place, the Rockets returned the favour in games three and four, evening the series with a pair of one-goal victories to shrink the series to a best-of-three.
The series then shifted back to Victoria for the pivotal fifth game, where the Rockets stormed in and took a convincing 4-1 road win to put Victoria on the ropes after three straight losses. In game six in Kelowna, the Royals returned to their defensive structure and sent the series the distance with a 3-2 win, which was their third victory by a single goal in the series.
The stage was set for a classic game seven tilt on Vancouver Island between the two west coast rivals in a season that had already laid the groundwork for a flourishing rivalry. First period goals from Soy and Forsberg gave the Royals an early 2-0 lead that remained unchanged through 40 minutes, giving the sold-out crowd of 7,006 a sense of anticipation as Victoria looked to knock off the defending WHL champions.
Just 73 seconds into the final frame, 2014 Nashville Predators’ draft pick Justin Kirkland cut the Royals lead in half. The 2-1 score held up until a disastrous final shift in the Victoria zone when Kirkland wristed his second marker of the period past Vollrath with just two-tenths of a second remaining to send the game into overtime.
With the home crowd stunned by the buzzer-beater, the Rockets completed the comeback less than six minutes into overtime, when the puck bounced to Calvin Thurkauf at the faceoff dot in front of the Royals’ net, and he buried the winner to send Kelowna to the Western Conference Final.
It was a heartbreaking finish to the season for the Royals and a painful memory that still lingers today. Lowry did take home his second WHL Coach of the Year award in three seasons on the strength of the Royals’ torrid regular season.
End Of An Era
The Royals bowed out in the first round of the 2017 Playoffs to the Everett Silvertips. That series will be remembered for the decisive sixth game in Victoria, which was one for the history books. Outhouse dueled future Philadelphia Flyers netminder Carter Hart for 151 minutes and 36 seconds, including five overtime periods before Cal Babych scored the winner, giving Everett a 3-2 series-clinching victory in the longest game in Canadian Hockey League history.
Change came to Victoria in the months that followed, as Lowry returned to the NHL as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings.
“We are thankful for the time that Dave was behind the bench for our club,” Hope said in a Royals announcement. “It was just a matter of time before he moved back to the NHL. Dave set a high standard and was an important part of building our program to where it is today. We thank the entire Lowry family for their commitment to our franchise, and wish Dave success as he takes another in his career.”
The keys to the Royals’ car were then handed to Dan Price, who had served as an assistant to Lowry in Victoria in 2016-17 and was named head coach for the 2017-18 season. Price’s first assistant coaching experience in the WHL was with the franchise in Chilliwack for two seasons (2006-08), and he also served as an assistant for the Tri-City Americans for two seasons (2012-14).
Victoria again reached that second round barrier in each of Price’s first two seasons at the helm (2017-19). Outhouse was the common thread that weaved the Lowry and Price eras together. The Likely, BC native played at least 60 games and surpassed 30 wins in his first two seasons as the Royals’ starter (2016-18) and was the team’s MVP during his overage campaign in 2018-19.
All tolled, Outhouse recorded 114 wins in 196 games with ten shutouts and played in 30 postseason games, all franchise records. After graduating from the WHL, he split the 2019-20 season between the ECHL and American Hockey League affiliates of the Winnipeg Jets before moving on to U SPORTS powerhouse University of New Brunswick.
The Royals attempted to hold off the Vancouver Giants for second place in the B.C. Division late in the 2019-20 season when the COVID stoppage took effect. After the WHL officially declared the season, the club parted ways with Hope after eight seasons (2012-20), and shortly afterward, they promoted Price to the dual role of head coach and general manager.
Going on four seasons after his departure, Lowry’s fingerprints are still all over the Royals in their roster construction and personality.
When Outhouse graduated from junior after the 2018-19 season, Victoria swung a deal to land overage goaltender Shane Farkas from the Portland Winterhawks for 2019-20. Farkas was outstanding, posting a 2.20 GAA and a .929 save percentage with 18 wins in 28 games before sustaining a season-ending injury on Jan. 14, 2020.
Just five days before, the team traded for Anaheim Ducks prospect sniper Brayden Tracey and goaltender Adam Evanoff, who ended up playing nearly every game for the rest of the season. The team sputtered down the stretch, going 8-11-6, with Evanoff and rookie Connor Martin between the pipes before the season went on pause.
By the time Lowry departed after the 2016-17 season, most expected the Royals to be at or near the top of the standings each season and play into the spring. By extension, the fanbase has a sense of expectation that they will put together a playoff team, even if past postseason letdowns have led to some nervousness that kicks in when the weather gets warmer.
After two seasons (2017-19) as an assistant in Los Angeles, Lowry returned to the WHL as head coach of the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2019-20. In his lone season in Brandon, the Wheat Kings won 35 games and sat in third place in the East Division, six points behind the first-place Prince Albert Raiders. Lowry then headed back to the NHL with Winnipeg this season, where he coaches his son Adam.
Every WHL team that Lowry has coached has been in a better place when he left than when he arrived, and that was unquestionably the case in Victoria. Lowry inherited a young, struggling team and changed the attitude of the franchise while mapping out the blueprint to be an annual contender.
Jonathan covers the Saskatoon Blades and the Victoria Royals of the WHL. He has extensive experience in hockey and sports journalism and broadcasting. This includes bylines at Sports Spectrum, Toronto Blue Jays, Victoria Grizzlies, DUBNetwork as well as a long-time role with the Canadian Baseball Network.