June 19, 2017 - North American Hockey League (NAHL) - Corpus Christi IceRays
"As a group, we all kind of new it was coming. When it actually came and hit, you get this feeling in your gut and wonder what you're going to do, where you're going to play, and how it's going to work out for yourself next year. We were kind of eased into it. It wasn't like a, 'Oh, by the way we're folding,' but we knew it was coming."
After Regula completed his first season with the Wichita Falls Wildcats, the organization announced it would cease operations for 2017-18, meaning 16 players were looking for a new home to play hockey during the upcoming year. The difference is slim compared to entering your first year of junior hockey out of high school or midget, but the churning still remains after believing you've cemented your place on a roster to build on your first-year successes. Players like Regula were quickly searching for teams and taking phone calls from interested teams across junior hockey to pick up the loose ends.
One call among the others to Regula came from Brad Flynn, once again to little surprise.
"Before he even called me, [Head Coach] Josh Nelson told me that they were going to reach out to me before anything happened, so I knew it was coming and was happy about it. [Corpus Christi] is a beautiful place, so in terms of city you think, 'Wow, I'd like to play hockey there next year.' When [Flynn] called me, he talked really highly about me, spoke about the team and broke it all down. I was really impressed and excited to even have a spot at camp."
What came next became the first true surprise of the off-season for Regula.
"At the end of the conversation, he said, 'We'd like to offer you our last tender spot.' I said for sure, I'd love that."
The 19-year-old finished the 2016-17 season with seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points through 52 games in his debut season, making the adjustment from the suburbs of Hockeytown to a city known for its Air Force Base just minutes from the Texas-Oklahoma border. First and lasting impressions of the South Division as well as hockey in Texas are comparable to many who make the jump from Michigan, including lack of winter months and a grittier style of play on the ice, but as the season wore on Regula felt his progression grow defensively, getting more time on the penalty kill and creating chances to set up scoring for his teammates and himself.
In 12 of his games this year, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound forward faced off against the IceRays starting with his second-career game on Sep. 15, 2016 in Wichita Falls, earning two goals and two assists for four points as well as his first career point (an assist) on Sep. 16, 2016 against the IceRays. His first impressions reflected much of the sentiment of the 2016-17 IceRays team across much of the South Division: difficult to play against. The Wildcats did claim the season series at 7-4-1-0, however the IceRays held their own at the American Bank Center, keeping Wichita Falls back with a 3-2-0-1 record including wins in their final three games in Corpus Christi. Much of that difficulty, to Regula, came as a credit to the fan support.
"The games at the end of the season were packed. We didn't ever have [attendance] under 3,000 fans when we played them. It's intimidating and the biggest crowd I've played in. And since they had so much support from their fans, the IceRays were buzzing, they were finishing hits and that gave them energy all game long. They were hard to play. You couldn't really break them down."
On top of that, Regula noted coaching as another hurdle as an opponent when facing the IceRays this year. In his eyes, compared to other teams in the South Division, Flynn's coaching and preparation made it difficult to work through the IceRays and create offensive opportunities, a similar sentiment felt throughout much of the division especially toward the end of the season and playoffs. Little did Regula know Flynn was already interested in him before even returning to Corpus Christi.
"We actually had C.J. on our radar last year, but since I was announced as Head Coach in the summer, C.J. had already committed to Wichita Falls," said Flynn. "We lost three of our four centers at the end of last year with Baskerville, Filler and Krueger going to college or aging out. All three of those guys brought a lot of grit, leadership and desire. We played the Wildcats at one point when they were down to four defensemen, and C.J. was playing defense to fill-in against us. That impressed me a lot because out of high school it was all about his skill. I know that skill set is there, but that situation showed me he is also a great team guy."
While there's no specific guarantee that any player on the 30-man protected list will adorn an IceRays uniform come September heading into next month's Main Camp, a year in the NAHL doesn't hurt for Regula's chances of heading to training camp. The forecast is a little more certain heading into next year, and Regula hopes to build off his rookie season and continue his improvement in the South Division, this time wearing red and gold.
"I hope to play a big role next year in terms of what I do for the team," said Regula. "I have 100 percent faith that Coach Flynn will help push me in practice and off the ice and help me get better in all aspects of my game. As a coach, he's young, eager to push his players, and the team does well then he does well. I have no problem thinking he will help me move up in the hockey world."
"C.J. is a big, skilled center that plays 200 feet and with some bite," said Flynn. "He had a good rookie season last year as an 18-year-old, played a lot and developed an all-around game. He was solid in the face-off circle against us, and we expect him to eat up minutes by contributing at both ends of the ice."