Not often does a 15-year-old player make a splash in the PJHL but the waves left by Jeff Tambellini in his season with the Port Coquitlam Buckeroos still ripple in his memory to this day.
Tambellini’s rookie season came in the 1999-2000 campaign where he posted 30 goals and 34 assists in 41 games which led the team and placed him third in the league. The season established him as a legit prospect and shaped his future in the game, leading to his selection as a first-round NHL draft pick and a pro career that set him up for the work in hockey he does today as director of player development with the Seattle Kraken.
Going back to the early part of the journey in 1999, Steve Tambellini, Jeff’s dad, was working as the Vancouver Canucks’ director of player personnel and knew Grant Kerr who covered the team and the NHL as a reporter for the Canadian Press. Kerr also happened to be the head coach of the Buckeroos.
“That was probably the first contact I’d had with Grant, just knowing him with his connection to my dad,” says Jeff, 38. “I was lucky that he asked me to try out for his team and we believed that it was a good spot.
“He gave me an amazing opportunity as a 15-year-old player to come in and play an impact role on his team.”
Tambellini joined a Buckeroos crew that boasted some rugged returning players that immediately realized the talent they had in their young teammate and allowed him to get comfortable while learning the ropes.
“I was the most well-protected player in the league, that’s all I know,” says Tambellini with a laugh. “We had amazing veterans. Jim Druska, Gregg Scurr, Rich Kellington, there were so many guys that were outstanding veterans. They really didn’t need to go out of their way and help a young kid like me but they were so good to me and made me feel a part of their group right away.
“It was one of my favourite teams I ever played on.”
The PJHL was a seven-team league at the time with Port Coquitlam and the now-defunct Queen’s Park Pirates in New Westminster along with league mainstays Abbotsford, Ridge Meadows, Grandview, Delta and Richmond.
“It felt like (with) every team there was a rivalry,” says Tambellini. “It was it was a really good feeder league into the BCHL at that time. It was a league the (WHL) used to send back some of their 16-year-olds… it was an older league, it was a tough league so it had a little bit of everything and for me as a young player, to be able to just handle the chippiness and just the level of veteran guys in that league, it was great for me.”
Kerr turned his 15-year-old playmaker loose and trusted the vets to keep him safe. It was a successful formula for Tambellini who saw his hockey trajectory arcing upwards. He went on to enjoy a career that took him to the NCAA, the NHL, and Europe and even featured a World Junior Championship where he played alongside a young Sidney Crosby as well as Brent Burns, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Getzlaf.
Looking back, Port Coquitlam and the Buckeroos organization provided as much fun playing the game as he’d enjoy in those later, high-profile stages. Recently, the PJHL has fielded expressions of interest from groups probing the idea of a new franchise in Port Coquitlam. Tambellini notes there are some real positives to the idea.
“The Tri-Cities area is such a fantastic place because you’re exposed to so many parts of the city,” he points out. “You know, we were lucky we had great ownership at the time, people came to the games and we had good, competitive teams. But I just think that location is a fantastic spot for a Junior B team.”
Fast forwarding to the present day, Tambellini is back in the NHL, working with the Seattle Kraken’s top prospects. Seattle boasts a 16-9-3 mark, holding down a playoff spot and sitting second to only the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL’s Pacific Division with games in hand. They also selected 11 players, including four in the second round, in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft so player development is a crucial area for the club. Tambellini credits the franchise’s forward-thinking approach for an enjoyable workplace and for the success they are starting to see on the ice.
“It’s an innovative organization,” he says. “We have probably the most diverse team staff top to bottom. And just their attention to detail and their openness to gain an edge in any way is really impressive.
“So we’re trying to build out our player-development department, our prospects seem to double almost every year right now; it’s been really exciting.”
Reflecting on his start in the PJHL, Tambellini certainly knows what it’s like trying to make an impact as a young player so he’s well-positioned to help his new team’s young players succeed on their journeys as well.