When Brad Rihela got his first head coaching job, he was just three seasons removed from his playing days.
It was the 2013-14 season and the Aldergrove Kodiaks took a bit of a chance handing the reins to the then 23-year-old former defenceman who had earned a reputation as a fierce competitor over his nearly 120 games in the PJHL, mainly with the Grandview Steelers.
But what might have looked like a coaching gamble turned out to be a smart move as the Kodiaks went 34-6-4 under their rookie head coach. Rihela’s crew won the league championship with a thrilling seven-game series against the Richmond Sockeyes that saw them come back from 3-1 down to win it all.
“Rick Harkins gave me the opportunity to become a head coach with Aldergrove; I was a really young coach coming into the league and our teams in Aldergrove were fortunate to have success right away,” says Rihela, now an associate head coach and general manager with the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs. “I had always thought about coaching. I’ve always enjoyed that side of the game and the pressures that come with it.
“I was a hockey historian as a kid, more or less, constantly watching games, staying current with changes that were happening from a structure point of view within the game. I was a rink rat all the way up and still am to this day.”
The PJHL is what gave Rihela, still just 32, his grounding in the game. The coaches that influenced him, players he competed against and the experiences he lived in the league helped him find success behind the bench. As a rookie blueliner with Grandview in the 2006-07 season, Rihela was part of a Steelers team that went to the league finals before falling to the Abbotsford Pilots. It was an experience that stays with him to this day.
“That playoff run was just a really exciting time for our group,” says Rihela. “I was so young at the time that I was just trying to learn on the fly, really leaned on a lot of the older guys.
“We had a lot of success that season and it was unfortunate we couldn’t get it done, but I just remember learning about how hard it was to play in the playoffs; it is something you can’t understand until you go through it.”
Along the way, Rihela played with and against several players that would go on to success in the NHL. He was teammates on the Steelers with Andrew Hammond, who gained fame with the Ottawa Senators in 2015 by going 20-1-2 down the stretch to the playoffs all while wearing a goalie mask featuring McDonald’s restaurant character the Hamburglar. The ’07 PJHL playoffs saw Rihela facing off against Abbotsford’s Derek Grant, who has played 381 NHL games to date. He remembers Brenden Dillon as a talented young defenceman with the Hope Icebreakers in ‘06-‘07 as well.
“I was not surprised when the Hamburglar came on the scene in the NHL,” says Rihela. “I didn’t get to know Andrew extremely well as we had just the one run together, but I always remembered how hard he was to score on in practice and the care he took in his game. He was really dedicated, and it is not surprising to see him get rewarded with the career he has carved out for himself.”
Given the NHL futures of some of the players Rihela bumped into in Junior hockey, it may surprise some to hear which player he thinks of as the best he saw in the PJHL.
“I would have to say the best player at the time would have been Eric Friesen. He was just unbelievable with the puck and a constant offensive threat,” Rihela says of the player who scored 115 points in 91 PJHL games with Abbotsford and Hope.
(Editor’s note: Friesen concluded his Junior career after scoring 47 goals in 45 games with the Hope Icebreakers in 2006-07).
Now viewing the game filtered by a coach’s lens, Rihela is honest about the strengths he showed as a player as well as his shortcomings.
“I was extremely competitive, a good skater, I defended hard. I certainly lacked in a lot of areas skill wise (but I) cared about winning.
“(As a coach), I would like the competitiveness and mentality that I played with, but I think I would also hate the amount of undisciplined penalties I took because of it,” he says with a laugh.
The big takeaway for Rihela from the PJHL is the people he formed relationships with, the coaches and staff who shaped his game and continue to stay in touch. Aldo Bruno in particular, with the time and energy he’s put into the Grandview Steelers franchise, stands out as a key figure in Rihela’s career arc.
“I always bump into Aldo around the rinks when we are both scouting for our teams; it is always great to see him,” says Rihela. “He was really hard on me at times, but he taught me a lot about being a competitor. I learned some hard lessons playing for him but looking back now he was always somebody that respected me and had my back…
“I think the biggest thing that stands out is just his passion for the game, and for his program and players. As a player, that’s all you want.”
As a coach, Rihela is putting those influences to good use as he enters his 11th season working behind a hockey bench. No telling how far they’ll take him.