It’s been six months since Jakob Stukel scored the lone goal in a shootout that closed the Kootenay Ice’s worst season ever on yet another losing note. The Calgary Hitmen winger may have sent the 12,083 fans — who attended last year’s regular season closer at the Scotiabank Saddledome — home happy, but he also delivered one last blow to a team that didn’t have a lot to smile about last year.
On Friday night, the Kootenay Ice will kick off their season back in Calgary for the first of a back-to-back series with their arch-rivals, and it’s safe to say that there’ll be no need to drum up any extra motivation on the Kootenay side.
Last season, the Ice dropped all seven of their games against the Hitmen during a disappointing year that only produced 12 wins and 31 points in 72 games, and caused them to miss the playoffs for the first time in their 18 year history. The Hitmen also capped off the Ice’s 0-5 preseason on September 17, beating them 2-1 in Crowsnest, AB.
“Calgary is our biggest rival and has been from day one, it’s the big city versus the small city,” Ice President and GM, Jeff Chynoweth, said about his expectations for game one. “For our [new] players it’s going to be a big adjustment playing in an NHL arena [and] I think it will be an exciting time for all our guys.”
While Chynoweth was quite clear on what he thought of their lack of pre-season victories, saying he’s “never [cared] and never will” about preseason results, for Coach Luke Pierce and the players, they’re using it as motivation for this weekend.
“There’s a little bit of extra drive to get a win, for sure,” Pierce told the Townsman after practice on Monday. He added that he was really impressed with the way the team came together during their last preseason game, against Calgary, and it was just unfortunate that they couldn’t get the win.
The players were also encouraged by their evolution over the preseason, despite the lack of results, and feel that they’re in good shape to take on Calgary over the weekend.
“We feel good, we’ve had a couple of practices, we need to finish off the week strong here and do some more game-like situations and we’ll be good,” veteran centre Matt Alfaro said. “It would’ve been nice in the preseason to get a win under the belt, especially for the younger guys, but it’ll be even sweeter when we get our first during the regular season.”
Third-year defenseman Cale Fleury, agreed, pointing out that their goose-egg win record didn’t tell the full story of the preseason. “We were in overtime three times,” Fleury said. “Knowing that we were that close makes us even hungrier for a win.”
While Coach Pierce has remained tight lipped on what exactly the opening day roster and lineup combinations will look like —other than saying Payton Lee will start in net — Fleury and Alfaro both indicated that they know the first three lines and it’s only the fourth that could be a surprise.
One of the biggest lineup decisions will be who plays with the Taphorn twins. Keenan and Kaeden Taphorn are highly touted rookie wingers from Yorkton, Saskatchewan, who the Ice united late last year, and should play on Friday. According to Pierce, fellow rookies Michael King, Eli Lieffers or Tanner Sidaway are the three possible candidates to fill the centre with the Taphorns.
Both Alfaro and Fleury have been very impressed by the young blood who have been injected into the team this season. “A lot of the younger guys are really skilled, pretty fast skaters and they work hard,” Fleury said. “That’s good to see.”
From top to bottom, the Ice have been working hard in the off-season to avenge their last season. Last year, Calgary and Kootenay never felt more apart. The two were on polar opposite spectrums of the attendance records, the number of NHL prospects, and placing in the league standings.
This weekend, they’ll have the Hitmen firmly in their crosshairs and hopes are high that they’ll finally be able to pull the trigger on a win, after a year of futility against their Goliath.