By the end of last season, the entire Kootenay Ice organization appeared to just want some rest. This season, they’re already raring to go for next year.
Despite missing the playoffs for a third straight season, the Ice improved by 21 points in the standings and their new management group believes that they are a much different team than they were when the 2017-18 campaign started.
“We’ve got a lot of work we want to do over the offseason, a lot of lofty goals off the ice that are really important as well, but to be honest, I wish it was September tomorrow, and we could get back at it,” said President and General Manager Matt Cockell at the team’s season-closing press conference on Tuesday. “We’re really excited with where the [players are] headed, individually and as a team.”
After taking over the franchise in May as a co-owner and leader of the Ice hockey operations team, Cockell made a number of personnel changes, including the hiring of head coach James Patrick.
With 11 years of experience as an NHL assistant coach and over 20 years as a professional hockey player, Patrick made a fairly seamless transition into junior hockey. While it wasn’t without heartache, the coach enjoyed the process of developing the young Ice.
“I got a lot of help from Matt and [assistant coach] Gord [Burnett], who was here before, and Jon [Klemm], who’s been an assistant coach in this league for a long time,” Patrick said. “It was rewarding, frustrating, and agonizing at times, [but] when you see a player have success, you feel proud.
“I really enjoyed the respect and the work ethic that the players showed, and the teachability, which I would say is even better at this level than it is in the NHL.”
Although the team had a goal to reach the playoffs, but fell short after struggling down the stretch — a period which included an eleven game losing streak — Patrick truly believed that his team was playing their best hockey at the end of the season.
“If you look [at that] span [at the end of the year], the amount of games we lost in the third period that were tied [was unbelievable],” he said. “One game against Lethbridge, we had 27 scoring chances for [and] they had 15, and we lost the game. We played really well. We did so many good things, [but] their goalie stood on his head and we lost a really tight game.
“A lot of those games, we cracked or we had a bad bounce, or a bad mistake… We didn’t get results, but there is no doubt in my mind that we were playing our system better than we were two months before. We were better as individual players, and so was the competition.”
Taking advantage of their early elimination from playoff contention, the team brought in a number of prospects to practice and play with the team throughout the last month of the year. They also gave prospective key players more ice time, all of which they hope will get them off the ground running in 2018-19.
“I really believe that we are going to be way ahead, starting out next year,” Patrick said. “As a coaching staff, we’ll be way more familiar with the league and our talent level will emerge. We’ll need guys to step in and fill the roles that some of our older players had this year, and they’ll have to fill those roles and run with them.
“I feel that a lot of our returning players [will be better] and a number of our younger guys are going to make strides [as well].”
Patrick pointed specifically to 2000-born players like Keenan Taphorn, Kaeden Taphorn and Michael King getting stronger, and breakout players like Cam Hausinger, taking on an even bigger role next season.
There are also three players that he already considers to be knocking on the door of elite-status.
“Brett [Davis], Peyton [Krebs] and Martin Bodak, if he’s back, can be elite players in this league,” the coach explained. “They all have great work ethics, [and I know] they’re not going to take much time off [before they’re back] training to be the best.
“Brett is as dedicated as anyone in hockey, Martin Bodak wants to play at the highest level, [and] I’ve never seen a 16-year-old with a work ethic like Peyton: his fitness is incredible, and every day he’s the hardest worker in practice.”
While the team will surely miss their three graduating 20-year-olds: Colton Kroeker, Alec Baer and Colton Veloso, the coaching staff is looking forward to seeing which of their current youngsters will grow into those sorts of players.
“In coaching circles, in the NHL and here, we always say [that you need] 10,000 hours to really master a skill or develop a skill. [So] we’d say ‘repetition, repetition’, to see if we can reinforce what they have to do,” Patrick said. “Matt, who’s been around the league for a long time, would say, ‘You’ll see some of these guys at 16 and 17, and you won’t believe what they’re like at 19.’
“If you could have seen Kroeker and Dallas Hines when they were 16 or 17, you would think that they weren’t going to get it, [but] they became pretty good players.”
Throughout the summer, Patrick and Cockell expect their players to take their training and workout regimens seriously.
“It’s important that school kids focus on school, get back to their families, and then get ready to get in the best shape [they can to] get bigger, faster, and stronger,” Patrick said. “Some of the guys who aren’t in school have summer jobs, [so they’re] going to have to manage [their] time well because training and workouts are so important now. If you don’t do it, you’re so far behind.”
For the next couple of weeks, however, Patrick wants them to have some downtime.
“[For] the next two or three weeks, [they should] get away from hockey, get back to their families [and] have fun,” he said. “You can watch hockey on TV [though]. I think you can learn a lot from watching the NHL playoffs, the battle, and the will to win. It’s so evident. That’s why it’s the greatest trophy in sports, the hardest one to win.”
Off the ice, Cockell knows that there is still a lot of work for him to accomplish over the off-season to develop a better team and make even greater inroads within the community.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time [working] on how we can be better, what that plan looks like for our players over the summer, [and] the [WHL Bantam] draft is a really important checkpoint [too],” the general manager said. “[We’re] moving into a period of patience and discipline in our plan. We feel like we have the guys in the room to move forward, with the goals that we have for our team. We feel that we have the staff to help them get there, so now it’s about development.
“In the community, we’ve been really excited about what we’ve been able to do, just in terms of integration and participating [in] programs, [so] we’re sure working hard at it. This next two or three months, in terms of renewals, our Drive to 25 and corporate sponsorship is just so important and that’ll be a big part of our focus as well.”
Under the Ice’s new ownership and management, average attendance at Western Financial Place increased from 1,754 in 2016-17 to 2,442 in 2017-18.
After winning the draft lottery on Wednesday, the Ice will have the second overall selection for a second straight year. Last season, they took forward Connor McClennon and the season before they selected Krebs as the top pick in the entire draft.
While the next month may be tough for the Ice, having to watch the playoffs from the outside, their future appears as bright as ever.