As the team gets set to host their annual ‘Teddy Bear Toss’ on Saturday afternoon, Kootenay Ice head coach James Patrick knows that it’s not an event you can really prepare for.
“I’ve seen a few on video when I’m pre-scouting teams and it’s amazing. I saw one where a player scored and he was doing an interview on the ice, they were cleaning up the Teddy Bears and it was a 20-minute ordeal,” Patrick said. “He was signing autographs and they almost carried him around the ice on their shoulders… and I was thinking, ‘holy smokes, this guy still has to play a game and there [are] 55 minutes left.
“I don’t know if it’s something you can prepare for, [but] I want us to be hungry to score goals [and] I want us to do the little things needed to score goals — put pucks in the paint, get bodies to the net, and drive off the backside.”
Following a two week plus absence from Western Financial Place, while they were on a 5-game road trip across the BC Division, the Ice should return to a packed house. The ‘Teddy Toss’ night is always one of the year’s most well-attended games and this season has already proved to include a resurgence of community support.
Having had more success at home than they did during the 1-3-1-0 road swing, Patrick is hopeful that the Ice can put on a good show.
“I hope there is a lot of excitement in the building and we’ve felt the energy off the home crowd [in our past few home games],” he said. “With the Teddy Bear toss thrown in, [that should] make for a really fun night.”
Adding to the intrigue of the game, is the team’s visitor for the night, the Calgary Hitmen. Kootenay’s biggest historical rival, it is the first of back-to-back, back-to-back games between the two teams.
After Saturday’s game, the Ice play in Calgary on Sunday, and after the Christmas break, the teams play each other again in Cranbrook on December 27 and in Calgary on the 28th.
“I haven’t [seen anything like it before] in the regular season,” Patrick said. “I’ve seen back-to-back, but not four in a row, so it’s unique. The fact that we’re in the same division and we’re fighting for the playoffs, I think that just ties into it really being like a playoff series.
“We can only take it one game at a time [though].”
Both teams will be missing a few key players throughout the mini-series, due to international commitments at the U-20 World Junior Championships in Buffalo, New York. Ice forward Gilian Kohler has already departed for Switzerland’s selection camp and defenceman Martin Bodak will soon join Slovakia.
For Calgary, the team’s top two defencemen (and scorers) will be away, with Carolina Hurricanes prospect Jake Bean with the Canadian National Team, and breakout sophomore Vladislav Yeryomenko with Belarus.
“For both teams, depth is going to be important and you’re going to have to have different guys stepping up for you,” Patrick said. “It’ll be a test for our younger players, the 16 and 17-year-olds. It’ll be a bigger role for them, so how they respond and how they fare will play a big part in the outcome of these games.”
The Ice will also be adjusting to life without Vince Loschiavo, after the veteran winger was traded to the Moose Jaw Warriors on Monday in exchange for a prospect and a draft pick.
“[Loschiavo] was a popular guy who was here for a long time and he’s a really likable person,” Patrick said. “It affects the team that we’re going to miss a really good person, but saying that it’s an opportunity for younger players to step up and fill that role.
“Whether it’s Gilian Kohler or [Cole] Muir or Sebastien Streu or Kaeden Taphorn, guys like that are going to have a bit of a bigger role now.”
Although the Ice had a shutout win and plenty of positive moments in their tough tour of BC, there are plenty of aspects of their game that Patrick would like to see improve over the weekend.
Their league-worst 18-goals-in-136-attempts power play is certainly a major concern.
“We didn’t get a power play in [our second most recent game in] Victoria and then we got a 5-on-3 in Vancouver, [but] I know we had a scoring chance and I was happy with that,” the coach said. “We just weren’t able to put it away. Certainly, we’ve got a long way to go on it though [and] I’m no closer to being satisfied.
“We [have to be more] willing to accept the mentality that you have to muck it up, you have to get pucks in the paint, [and] you have to try and shoot pucks with net front presence.”
At 13-17-2-0 and clinging on to third place in the Central Division, the Ice have a great opportunity to distance themselves from the 10-17-3-1 Hitmen in the next four games. The rivals have not met since the first two games of the 2017-18 season and both clubs have changed their personnel drastically since then.
“I know they’re fighting for a spot, just like we are [and] winning games just like we are,” Patrick said of the Hitmen. “They’re losing to the same teams we’ve been losing to, so it’s been a really similar path.
“No question now, that these divisional games back to back, when you’re close in the standings, [are] huge games. You don’t even need to talk about it. The players themselves know [and it’s just about] executing your game plan.”
In their last ten games, both the Ice and Hitmen have four wins, five losses and either an overtime or shootout loss.
Calgary has the sixth best penalty kill in the WHL (81.3 percent) and Kootenay is 12th (78.3 percent).
Colton Kroeker continues to lead the Cranbrook club in points with 27 in 29 games, followed closely by 16-year-old rookie Peyton Krebs who has 25 in 27 games and Alec Baer who has 24 points in 32 games.
Puck drop is at 4 p.m. at Western Financial Place on Saturday and fans are encouraged to bring as many new toques, mittens or teddy bears as they like — wrapped in clear plastic bags — which will be donated to local charities and organizations following the game.