Saturday, February 13, 2016

Early Spring upon Iceland

Yes, yes, there's been  nary a word out of this blog for sometime. I've heard the questions, heard the rumours and heard the commentary. Blogging takes some time to do it intelligently - and there's an argument that the product here isn't even that - but in reality, life happens and tends to get in the way of the things we enjoy.

Such is the case here. Family, life, job all have taken precedent over hockey bloggin' and as such, nothing but Crickets around this part of the web this season. I'm a season-ticket holder, not a member of the media any longer, and at that I've still missed probably 12 games this season due to work/life commitments. Hard to formulate an opinion on the players and the team when you're there part-time.

But what the hell, it's a Saturday and it's quiet, and hey, they won last night......

1. 2.5 - that's the magic number (as of Saturday, February 13) in wins or losses, combined by Edmonton and/or Regina - both with 53 points and both occupying the two wildcard playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, that will officially put the Ice playoff streak on ice, stopping it at 17 straight seasons the club made the post-season. Kootenay will play in the spring, but it will only be for one day as the regular season for the club ends March 20 in Calgary.

2. At 10-41-4 on the season with 17 games to go, Kootenay's on pace to win 12 games this season, eclipsing the franchise's worst season - the first one - as the Edmonton Ice in 1996-97 and 14 wins. Still time to fix that.

3. On the ice, you can't really fault the effort level of the team. It's rare the club isn't working hard. They're young, inexperienced and should get better, right? As of right now, I'm not entirely convinced. But that's the funny thing about junior hockey, it's cyclical and as the kids get older, they should get better. The majority of this club is 17 and 18-years-old. 17 of the 23-man roster are in that age-group. So by sheer age the team should be able to make the jump to a playoff team next year?

4. I'm not yet convinced. On the blueline, I think the club has a solid core that two years from now will be very good but up front there's a real drop-off from the club's top 2-3 forwards. And not from a work-ethic standpoint, but from a sheer talent/ability/speed standpoint. They seem to get beat to pucks more often than not and then they're playing defense or do not have possession of the puck enough to generate offense. Thus the club is out-shot often 2-1 on a nightly basis. That's a tough stat to claim wins.

5. Again, it's junior hockey and the bottom of the cycle has finally caught up to this club. It happens and it's how the club rebuilds that will be the litmus test. But this year more than any other, there's two things missing that other mediocre Ice teams had over the past 16 years: a marquee name that always brought you out of your seat; and; an up and comer that ensured that next year would be better. Yes, injuries played a huge part here this season. Insert Descheneau and Philp into that line-up and they would be better on the first problem. I don't think it would be enough to make the playoffs with those two in the line-up but better, nonetheless.

6. Almost all of this team is eligible to return next year, save for G Wyatt Hoflin and D Tanner Lishynsky. And they could add another 20-year-old as forwards Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky are they only overage players next season. Those two, along River Beattie are likely the top trio next season as they are this one. How the middle-six forwards evolve in the top-six and their ability to control the puck and put it in the next will go a long way to answering a lot of questions of this line-up right now. Because as of right now, scoring does not come easy to this group. Defensively they're not too bad given the sheer amount of chances they give up but if you can't balance it with scoring, it doesn't really matter, does it?

7. The team psyche is also a question. The losing weighs on players. Some can play through it for next season, some don't make it. Example: F Matt Alfaro last night in the club's 3-2 shootout win over Spokane. The club's 2nd leading scorer didn't see the ice the last half of the 3rd period in a 1-1 game and not until the last 30 seconds of OT - Alfaro had a nice chance but didn't score - as an obvious result of his effort all night. But it will be interesting to see if the top players can emerge on the other side of the column next year. Zborosky too; he's a player with a ton of talent but he too looks as though the losing is a 100lb gorilla on his back he's having a tough time shaking.

8. D Cale Fleury; D Dallas Hines; D Ryan Pouliot look like a good core for the next two years; but the club is clearly feeling the effects of their top bantam draft picks not showing up (D Griffen Mendel) or not panning out. No 1st round pick last year - although the Taphorn twins united and playing here next year could help that; but they'll be 16; Mendel committed to the University of Denver (NCAA) last week and won't be here anytime soon, if at all; F Jared Legien, 9th overall in 2013, but mired on the 4th line many a night on a struggling hockey club; and the enigmatic D Troy Murray, who oozes talent but plays as though his heart's not in it on many nights. Couple that with the emergence of F Hudson Elyniuk - he was Spokane's best forward IMO last night - and the player coming this way - D Tyler King's injury; that one hurts. Can't believe how much Elyniuk's skating has improved.

9. So what do we have that's positive this season? Lots, but most of all will be the potential number 1 (or two, if the team loses the WHL Draft Lottery, in which case it can only drop to the #2 pick) pick overall in the Bantam Draft. Lo and behold there's something more. At the top of many draft lists - Western Elite Hockey Prospects being one of them - is a special player produced, for the most part, right here at home. Cranbrook product D Bowen Byram, who has played the last two seasons with the AAA Bantam Golden Hawks out of Lethbridge, is the hands-down best defenseman available in the WHL Draft and arguably the top overall prospect. At 5'11" and not yet 15, he'll grow into a 6'1"-6'3" frame like his father, Shawn Byram - a 4th round pick by the New York Islanders in 1986 - Byram has Steve McCarthy/Brayden McNabb potential if you're looking for a former Ice comparable. F Peyton Krebs, of the Rocky Mountain AAA Raiders out of Okotoks is the top forward, along with F Kirby Dach (playing AAA Midget as an underage in Ft. Saskatchewan), and F Logan Barlage (Humbolt, SK) round out the top four. Really, given the team's fortune's on the ice and in the stands, I clearly cannot see how Byram isn't the club's pick come May. A local star - how many more fans will that bring out? - and a blueliner that is clearly in the top echelon of his age group. He was named captain as a 1st year Bantam at AAA Lethbridge - unheard of, nevermind he wasn't from there. He's currently 12th in AAA Bantam scoring in Alberta, first among D-men with 20g, 35a for 55 pts in 32 games. How does the Ice scouting braintrust NOT take the kid? When you rebuild your team, you do it with a marquee D-man. There's lots of forwards that could fill the role and I know I'm harping about scoring this season but this is about as simple decision as it gets.

10. The Future - obviously there's no secret that the club is not doing well, both on the ice and off it. The club is averaging 1937/game this season, a 12% drop over last season and even then it seems like there's barely 1500 in the stands. Most of the city/fans has heard the rumours of a pending sale - most of which have gone real quiet the last two months. Whether it's a group of local businessmen and the Niedermeyer brothers (owners of 24% of the team; the Chynoweth family owns the other 76%) or some other group, no one seems to know if a sale is imminent at the end of the season. And whether or not the ship can be turned around by the current ownership or whether the fans will come back with new ownership, to say the drafting of a local phenom will save this franchise is a lot for any young hockey player. It won't save the franchise. For that to happen the people will have to come back to the games. Eventually the money-losing will come to a head and some sort of move (either ownership change or moving the club) will happen. But drafting a local star will certainly help things. It would obviously bring more fans to the game (you can't discount what the local Junior B clubs have done in making it a mandate to have local players on the teams; attendance is up for all of them this season); but it also makes sense. Locals help; winning helps but clearly the team has done a lot of the latter and none of the former. There are four "Local" (Kootenay kids, East and West) that could've helped this team in a down year and put more butts in the seats as the team rebuilds. And all four (G Peyton Lee (Cranbrook); F Dryden Hunt (Nelson product but started with Kimberley minor hockey); D Isaac Schacher and D Jeff Rayman (Fernie) were at one point traded or released this season. In a rebuilding year, why not put some more butts in the seats? Granted, Hunt as the WHL leading scorer at this point probably wasn't in the cards but you get my drift. My point is this: drafting the best player, especially when you have the number 1 or 2 pick, is paramount, but when the best defenseman available is local and could help your team and your gate, the decision is that much easier.

11. The 2016 WHL Draft looms large for this club. The club has the lottery pick (1st or 2nd - barring something silly happening like the club not finishing dead last this season), along with their 2nd (23rd overall) Red Deer's 2nd -35th overall right now (Philp trade, which cannot be discounted BTW; that deal for an injured 20-year-old was heads and tails above anything I've seen for a 20-year-old traded at the deadline - Chynoweth took Sutter to the cleaners for a player that will be an impact player for the Memorial Cup bound Rebels as host, but it was a high price to pay); and Red Deers 3rd rounder, which was Moose Jaw's via another deal and stands to be 56th overall. So 5 picks in the top 56 at this point, which should set the club up for a run - 3-4 years from now.

12. Also not lost is that the Ice should get the number one overall CHL Import Draft pick. The leagues rotate at the first pick (WHL, OHL, QMJHL - this year) so they should get a good one. But again, the Import Draft has been even more a crap shoot than it was in the past. Could they convince a top prospect to come over to Kootenay (Cranbrook) on a rebuilding squad that is not drawing well? Time will tell but the track record (overall, not just Kootenay) isn't good. It also puts a question mark over what the club does with their current Euros - F Roman Dymacek, 18, and D Mario Grman, 18, who have both struggled to remain in the top six forwards and top 4 d-man on a weak club.

OT - So, just an opinion and like a##holes, everyone's got one. I keep thinking that something like sale or a move is going to happen with this team but everytime something heats up in terms of a sale, it dissipates as soon as it gains steam. Maybe it won't happen; but I can't see the status quo remaining. Something's gotta give.

Dbl OT - The WHL is releasing their Top 50 all-time players in increments. They've released 50-40 and at the #43 spot is F Sam Reinhart. Only F Nigel Dawes, Reinhart, F Jarret Stoll, F Cody Eakin made the top 125 for the Ice. F Dustin Sylvester is conspicuously absent. As is G Dan Blackburn and G Nathan Lieuwen. It's voted upon by the fans but I think only Dawes makes the top 40.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Kootenay's future takes center stage

In a rather sudden but to be expected expose, Cranbrook Daily Townsman sportswriter Taylor Rocca sat down with WHL Commissioner Ron Robison last week. Robison did not pull any punches in his assessment of the support of the Kootenay Ice. That story is at the bottom of this blog post. The exterior link is behind a paywall, so I'll post it here.

Here's a go at what can be done; Other teams facing attendance woes (and there's many of them across the WHL) can just do what's done here a lot: win. That part of the equation is never in question and really can't be. This season will be the toughest ever, at least on paper. It could be the first time the team misses the playoffs. They're teams in the WHL that haven't seen the post-season for five years; never won a championship, never won a Memorial Cup. That base is clearly covered.

1. The story is, timing-wise, not good. The club is in the midst of its season ticket drive and news like this doesn't help things. Then again, it's never a good time for news like this.

2. The question remains: will the support be there going forward? I renewed my season ticket last week. My youngest has his eyes on a roster spot with the Kimberley Dynamiters Junior B this upcoming season. If so, I guess I'll hold season tickets to both....

3. Before we rip into Robison's comments, there are a few things I've been told that will be a little better this season. Take them for what they're worth as I haven't had confirmation from the club or WFP of this;

  • New sound system for WFP
  • Goal Horn (an actual one, not recorded; apparently the place was always wired for one but somehow was never wired up)
  • The software for the spotlights have been fixed and they will be in place this year so a lights-off intro for the players should be on-tap

4. Some ideas from myself courtesy other fans that care:

  • Bottom rows of WFP: make them for kids and make them cheap; $5-8 max. They'll bring their parents. I would say that kids eat and parents have a "pop" or two but the team doesn't get the concession proceeds, but it would still put more bums in the seats. 
  • I know about the adage about pissing off the season ticket holders with discount seats. I'm not buying it (actually, I do, season tix that is); We season tickets holders will, for the most part, always be as such. The fan base needs to be expanded. The 25-40 year-olds need to be brought into the building (see above) and then they may get hooked.
  • Do whatever you can to jazz up the in-game experience; Blimps that drop things for the kids; T-shirt guns; whatever: I don't care how gimmicky it is. If it can be done, do it.
  • Progressive 50/50 updated as tix are bought; on screens around the rink; If there's one thing in this town that people like to do, it's win money. The progressive 50/50 is a good way to boost those revenues. The system is expensive but I don't think it's cost prohibitive. It's done in many arena around the league and at least deserves a trial here to see the response. The Curling Event a few years back had it and it was a success.
  • City: Explore the cost of updating and placing big screens around the rink; Advertising; 50/50 etc. And a real effort to explore the cost of a new/used video screen clock should be done. WFP is the only WHL rink without one. It is a staple of the Major Junior hockey world. At the Memorial Cup in Le Colisee in Quebec City they might have one for sale. I know they're a lot of money. Maybe a community fund-raiser, whatever, it needs to be looked into.
  • Update the windows of the restaurant. They need to swing open or open up completely so that patrons can hear and experience the game.
  • Approach Canfor and Teck; having the ability to pay for season's tickets by money off the paycheque for employees is an easy sell. Shiftworkers (days/afts- four on, four off) have the ability to share tickets etc. It used to be done with Tembec up until about 2007.
There is a cost/investment associated with the above and I know the owners aren't swimming in money but if this thing is going to be given a go at being a success, no gimmicky/game experience stone must be left unturned. The current course can be continued upon but expecting a different result by doing it over and over again isn't going to work. The further investment can be made now in making a real go of it or the investment will be made when the moving trucks pull up and the team has to start all over in .... I don't know... Abbotsford?

5.  Okay, I get it, the attendance is down, but what purpose does it serve by having the commissioner chime in with the deathknell of the Kootenay franchise without any real solutions? The team is a private enterprise and the books aren't available publicly but it's hard when the public can't see what the dollars and cents are. Or what the bottom line is. The lease of a public facility isn't available to the public - although an Freedom of Information request would do it but really, shouldn't have to. If the owners have had to put money into the franchise to keep it afloat, say so. Costs are up, attendance is down, I get it. I know it's a private enterprise but keeping the fans informed of the real costs of a franchise at this level may give them a real idea of why things are done the way they are.

6. The club did a $399 season ticket price a few years back that boosted numbers. Why not a special price all around? Get the fans back in the seats during a projected down year.

7. Why does Robison pour it all over Cranbrook and surrounding communities for lack of support but his tone is considerably different when talking about other troubled franchises (Lethbridge) or there's no mention that Swift Current, a equally-sized market that draws less fans than Kootenay, is ever in trouble? I know Swift is a publicly-owned team and the financial return is different but at the end of the day, is the return on the investment (Private vs Public, which only has to break even, I guess) the only thing that matters here? Robison states in the story that 3000 fans a night is the line needed. Why isn't he in every city with less than those numbers (Prince Albert, Moose Jaw, Swift, PG) stating the same or more?

8. The team name is the Kootenay Ice but really, how much support is coming from the Kootenay's anymore? We've talked about the great support the Junior B franchises enjoy all within an hour's radius of Cranbrook. Are those fans coming? Are they? I'd say, for the most part, no. Lots from Kimberley but I suspect the amount from the outlying (Fernie, Creston, Invermere) isn't much these days. Is this, for the most part, just a Cranbrook-fan base team now?

9. How will the fans/public in Cranbrook respond? There's some real threats to moving this team from the commissioner of the WHL. He specifically names Nanaimo, Lower Mainland (Abbotsford/Chilliwack), Winnipeg and "Northern Alberta" as possibilities. I mean, Nanaimo doesn't' have a suitable arena yet and no plans to build one; Abbotsford is empty but presents it's own challenges and is more realistically is going to be Vancouver's AHL team in the next year or two with the AHL exodus to the West Coast to support their NHL franchises. The Canucks won't wait long to do the same. And with Seattle building their new rink, an NHL franchise will be there soon enough which will also present more challenges. Northern Alberta? Not a chance. Expenses and the map make that choice more than prohibitive. Winnipeg? The AHL is already there. That ship has sailed.

10. Threats aside, we have a problem with attendance but threats doesn't fix it. Ideas do. Exhaust every possibility. Small markets can work in the WHL, including this one.

But if this is it.... if this very well could be the last season of the Ice in Cranbrook. Let's everyone know about it. Not if, not maybe, but a solid: This team is moving or will be sold and moved.

The team expenses every year are X; the revenue is Y and the owners have Z, which isn't enough to subsidize the team through extended losses - which are ????.

Then ultimately it will be up to the fans/community to support the team.


The future of the Western Hockey League in Cranbrook is on thin ice.
According to WHL commissioner Ron Robison, should attendance woes, financial struggles and corporate support of the Kootenay Ice not improve over the course of the 2015-16 season, the league may be forced to relocate the franchise.
“Our position is that we want to maintain our current markets where our clubs have operated, especially in the case of the Kootenay Ice who have operated in Cranbrook for many years,” Robison said over the phone from the WHL head office in Calgary on Wednesday afternoon. “Our hope is we can find a way to improve the fan support to keep the franchise in Cranbrook.
“But if that doesn’t change, we’ve got to look and explore options. We continue to be very concerned about the low attendance and the challenges that the club faces.
“It’s reached a very critical stage. I think it’s something we’re going to have to determine this year. If things aren’t improving, I don’t believe ownership or the league will be in a position to continue to support the franchise remaining in Cranbrook. It’s a very critical season coming up. We need to see more support in order to get us to a position where we have confidence in the market moving forward, but at this stage, we’re very concerned about the future of the franchise.
“[Cranbrook] has to be a viable market moving forward. We’re concerned right now, under any circumstances. It’s going to be a challenge, regardless of the ownership group.”
Upon relocating to Cranbrook from Edmonton ahead of the 1998-99 WHL season, the Kootenay Ice played its first two campaigns out of the 1,704-seat Memorial Arena before moving into its present-day home -- the 4,264-seat Western Financial Place.
According to the Internet Hockey Database (hockeyDB.com), the inaugural season at Western Financial Place (2000-01) was a success at the gates as a nightly average of 3,635 fans piled into the brand-new building to support the defending WHL champions.
Unfortunately for the franchise, attendance hasn’t been the same since then, declining by approximately 38.4 per cent as of the 2014-15 season.
Numbers at the Western Financial Place gates hit a franchise-low mark of 2,227 during the 2013-14 campaign before improving slightly to 2,239 during 2014-15.
Only the Swift Current Broncos registered lower average attendance (2,162 fans per game) than the Ice during the 2014-15 season.
Despite a quality on-ice product that includes three WHL championships (2000, 2002, 2011), a Memorial Cup championship (2002), 17 consecutive playoff appearances, 16 straight seasons with a regular-season record of .500 or better, the attendance woes have not shown significant signs of improvement.
Robison said the slight bump in average attendance from 2013-14 to 2014-15 isn’t enough.
“We recognize Cranbrook is a small market in relation to other markets,” Robison said. “I think back to when the franchise moved into Cranbrook and the goal and certainly the requirement at that time was to draw a minimum of 2,800 fans. What we see now, is it’s going to have to be something in excess of 3,000 a game. When you look at the attendance this year, that’s certainly a long way from where we need to be.
“We’re a ticket-driven industry. That’s what determines, ultimately, the viability of a franchise in a certain market.”
With that in mind, Robison said the fate of the franchise lies in the hands of people within Cranbrook and its surrounding communities. Without improved fan support and corporate support, the league doesn’t see Cranbrook as a viable market for WHL hockey.
“We have to determine whether the ownership is prepared to continue under these circumstances and that’s a challenge unto itself,” Robison said. “All of our franchises are committed to their current markets provided they can run a viable franchise. That’s been a real challenge for several years. Anytime you have losses sustained by a club over an extended period of time, you have to consider your options.”
Robison said the league works to support its small-market franchises in many ways including monitoring financial performance, assisting with league-wide marketing programs and sponsorship arrangements, communications and broadcast support, as well as a special-events revenue-sharing program.
But those support systems alone aren’t enough to keep a franchise afloat.
“At the end of the day, it just comes down to the local support, from a ticket-sales and sponsorship standpoint, that will ultimately determine the fate of the franchise,” Robison said.
“Our hope would be we can get things turned around. But that will depend largely on the level of support that’s going to be forthcoming. If that doesn’t happen, we may not have any other alternative but to consider relocation.”
Should the fate of the franchise be relocation, Robison said there is no shortage of demand for franchises across western Canada, listing the Lower Mainland, Nanaimo, Winnipeg and “other markets in northern Alberta” as a selection of potential relocation options, should push come to shove.
At the end of the day, the WHL commissioner hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“It’s largely up to the community to step forward and support the team,” Robison said. “The team is prepared to do whatever it takes to preserve the franchise there, but it’s ultimately going to come down to ticket revenue and level of sponsorship to maintain [the franchise in Cranbrook].”
As it stands, the Chynoweth family owns a controlling interest in the Kootenay Ice.
The early bird deadline to purchase Kootenay Ice season tickets came to pass May 29.
Adult season tickets can be purchased for $585, a cost of $16.25 per games (36 games). Walk-up cost for an adult ticket is $23.
Senior (65 plus) season tickets can be purchased for $485, a cost of $13.47 per game, versus walk-up price of $18.
Finally, a season ticket for a child (ages four to 17) can be purchased for $385, or $10.69 per game, versus walk-up cost of $11.
Representatives from the Kootenay Ice were unavailable for comment as of press time Wednesday evening.
Kootenay Ice attendance (Attendance records courtesy HockeyDB.com)
Western Financial Place capacity: 4,264
1998-99: 1,611*1999-00: 1,528*^2000-01: 3,635
2001-02: 3,473^2002-03: 3,440
2003-04: 2,926
2004-05: 3,370
2005-06: 3,309
2006-07: 3,039
2007-08: 2,963
2008-09: 3,071
2009-10: 2,807
2010-11: 2,501^2011-12: 2,805
2012-13: 2,411
2013-14: 2,227
2014-15: 2,239
* = played at Memorial Arena (capacity 1,704)^ = won WHL Championship

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A better late than never look at next season

Okay, time stops for no man or for no team but for what it's worth, here's a look at the Kootenay Ice for next year.

1. They'll be a new look team from the bench out. This week the club announced that head coach Ryan McGill and the team had mutually parted ways, or will when McGill's contract ends June 30. You had to wonder what the future would be for McGill as usually any coach entering into their final year of their contract is always a harbinger for their immediate future and there was never any word out of Iceland that McGill's contract had been renewed. The release stated that the club and coach had mutually agreed to part ways. It's a curious decision; Was it McGill's philosophy? He's never made any bones about his style being, for lack of a better word(s), 'old school'. He was a task-master and some believe that isn't conducive to today's junior player. I don't buy it but next year's club will be younger, much younger.

2. Was it a cost-cutting move? McGill is a WHL/Memorial Cup winning coach and wouldn't come cheap.

3. The status of assistant coach Jay Henderson hasn't been discussed. I would imagine he'll apply to get the head coaching job.

4. Following Kootenay's less-than-stellar game seven loss against the Calgary Hitmen, Sam Reinhart was en route to the Rochester Americans of the AHL. He notched 2 assists in his first AHL game. The Amerks will miss the AHL playoffs, like their parent Buffalo Sabres club. Barring a call to Team Canada for the World Championships - which happened last season for Reinhart - his season is over..... D Rinat Valiev headed to Toronto to play for the Maple Leafs' AHL team, the Toronto Marlies.... Tim Bozon was sent to the Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL team of the Montreal Canadiens but they missed the playoffs too and Bozon played in his AHL debut Saturday in Hamilton's regular season finale. Valiev also made his debut Saturday and winds up the regular season for the Marlies on Sunday.

5. Game 7 also marked the end of the WHL careers of Bozon, Austin Vetterl and Levi Cable. The latter two will likely head to the C.I.S. to play university hockey.

6. Kootenay had an astounding 11 19-year-olds on this team. Only three can return next season as 20-year-olds. First Sam Reinhart is signed and will not return and will play in Buffalo or Rochester next season. As is Rinat Valiev (Toronto). That takes care of two. Jaedon Descheneau isn't signed by the St. Louis Blues as of yet and they have until next year (June 1, 2016) to sign him. If signed, he'll likely play in the AHL next season. If not, he'll be a lock to stay (or will he be traded?) Luke Philp, the club's playoff MVP, isn't drafted or signed but was ranked 172nd overall by NHL Central Scouting for the draft in June. He'll likely return as a 20-year-old. G Wyatt Hoflin isn't drafted or signed by anyone. He could return as a 20-year-old... D Tyler King is in the same boat and will likely return next season to mentor a young group... F Jon Martin also falls into the group. F Ryan Chynoweth, D Tanner Lishchynsky, D Lenny Hackman are all on the outside looking in. D Tanner Faith's shoulder injury is the wildcard. If he's healthy he may have a chance to stay and anchor a young blueline. - All told, that means of 14 regular 19 and 20-year-olds, only 3 will return for next season.

7. So who makes the cut? Philp and King are locks in my mind. The wildcard is Descheneau's status; if returned he could bring something back in terms of trade value. If not returned, Hoflin and Martin round out the 3rd spot. Faith, if healthy, could be traded but that's another wildcard. 20's are notoriously hard to trade because of the roster limit but both Philp and Descheneau may bring more back in return. If not, both give a young club a chance to pull through what will likely be a tough season.
My picks? Descheneau, Philp and King. If the former are traded Hoflin and Martin come into the mix. Faith is too much of a wildcard to risk a spot on.

8. Goaltenders for next season are in complete flux. Will the club give back-up Keelan Williams a shot? He didn't get a sniff this year and looks to have very little confidence. Declan Hobbs, 17, and Jakub Walter, 16, will have a shot at a job. Could both be here next season? Does Hoflin stay as a 20?

9. On the blueline, there's another question mark, depth-wise. D Tyler King, 20, Troy Murray, 18, Cale Fleury, 17, Dylan Overdyk, 18, Bryan Allbee, 18 make up the top five. 16-year-old, first round pick Griffin Mendel 16, should make the club next season. Problem is, there's more than just talk that the Okanagan product is headed to the BCHL's Penticton Vees next season and is not going to sign with the Ice. Penticton has a history of trying to scoop high-end WHL prospects and those whispers that Mendell not joining the Ice are getting louder. That will hurt a young team's development.

10. Forwards next year will be young, period. Depending on who returns as 20's, the likes of Matt Alfaro, 19, Zak Zborosky, 19, and Vince Loschiavo, 17, will be expected to lead the team in the scoring department next season (behind Philp and Descheneau, if they're back). River Beattie and Austin Wellsby will also be expected much of. Both 18, they didn't play a lot this season. One shining light coming next season is forward Drew Warkentine 16. Warkentine shined with the Tisdal (SK) Trojans of the Sask Midget League this season finishing 4th in league scoring with 66 points in 44 games. Warkentine should make this team next season and hopefully will make an immediate impact as a 17-year-old. Disappointing numbers for Ice 1st round pick (9th overall) Jared Legien with Moose Jaw of the Sask Midget league as a 16-year-old don't bode well for next year's team. Hopefully he can recover and stick with the team and make an impact. Having two successive first round picks in Legien and Mendell not with the team next season are a huge blow if it happens.

OT - All and all, the year will be the most challenging for the club - both on and off the ice - in Kootenay's 17-year history in Cranbrook. Will attendance continue to decline? It actually went up on average this season but only marginally. The Chynoweth's have publicly stated that they cannot continued to operate in Cranbrook drawing 2200 a game. What will the team draw without stars like Reinhart and Bozon in the lineup? The club has a 15-year lease that was signed in 2010. They're five years into it, does that play into things at all? The club's 17-year playoff streak is in serious jeopardy, on paper, at least. At least this season the team had 3 post-season games that generated $50,000-60,000 in revenue. 1st round picks MIA.... Oh, and through all of this; last night during the NHL Playoffs the story broke that former Kootenay Ice captain and LA King forward Jarret Stoll was busted for Cocaine and Ecstasy possession at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.   Stoll, who had a tough season as the Kings missed the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup last year, is an unrestricted free agent June 1 unless the Kings re-sign him. Which doesn't look good right now. Stoll has also been rumoured to be among the group attempting to buy the Kootenay Ice from the Chynoweths but never materialized.

2015-16 could be the most challenging season in Kootenay Ice history.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Post Season Dance begins

As the Kootenay Ice embark on their 17th consecutive season in the WHL Playoffs, a familiar foe is presented. The Calgary Hitmen, the WHL's version of Yin to Kootenay's Yang, will once again be the club's first round playoff opponent as Spring breaks.

1. Dropping two straight 1-goal games to end the regular season against the Hitmen and thus face their rivals in the first round. I don't think the Ice would have it any other way. The Ice beat the Hitmen in the first round last season before losing out to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the second round.

2. Kootenay started the playoffs on the right foot as the Ice beat the Hitmen at the Saddledome in Calgary 4-3. Luke Philp notched two goals and added an assist and Jaedon Descheneau added a goal and an assist. What are the odds that Sam Reinhart and Tim Bozon would be held off the scoresheet in an Ice win? Highlites are here. Game 2 goes at 4PM in Calgary and is on Shaw.

3. Another key plus in facing the Hitmen in the first round? Bigger crowds, at least somewhat given games 3 and 4 are here next Tuesday and Wednesday and should provide a better draw.

4. Kudos to the WHL/Ice/Hitmen/Shaw who did the Ice and their fans a big favour by NOT televising games 3 and 4 from the Rec Plex Tuesday and Wednesday. Ice fans get the best of both worlds by being able to watch the games on the weekend and head to the rink this week. That's a first for Shaw for covering the WHL Playoffs as they've always followed a particular series to it's end

5. Is Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin in the Hitmen heads for the playoffs? You'll remember that it was then the Ice back-up who backstopped the Ice with the series win last year in 6 games when Mackenzie Skapski was lifted in favour of Hoflin in the goalfest series.

6. Ice attendance woes were front and center this week as the WHL Commissioner Ron Robison talked publicly with the voice of the Ice, Jeff Hollick. The talk started earlier in the week when Robison was quoted in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix stating that "We are monitoring the situation very closely." The full script of that interview is right here.

7. So okay, attendance-wise, we have a problem. What is going to be done to improve it? Is the WHL Commissioner monitoring the situation the only approach? What concrete plans are in place to make this thing work?

8. Kootenay finished second-to-last in WHL attendance with a 2239 per game average this season. Only Swift Current is lower with 2162, which isn't surprising given that Swift Current is the smallest market in the WHL (all of CHL actually with a population of 15,500) while Cranbrook is a close second (2nd smallest, CHL-wise too at just under 20,000; OHL's Owen Sound is third smallest at 21,000.)

9. I haven't been able to find anything that Robison has said about Swift Current's attendance. From what I can gather, there isn't. It' s curious question. Kootenay, which is an identical market, is always fingered for sagging attendance but never Swift Current. I know that the Broncos are community owned and the Ice are privately owned but the economic platforms must be almost identical. Swift Current likely has a somewhat smaller travel budget but the cost structure must be really close. And last season the Broncos reported a healthy profit (but lost money the year before).

10. As if Kootenay didn't need any further hurdles attendance wise heading into the playoffs but the success 20 minutes up the road of the KIJHL's Kimberley Dynamiters will present one. The Dynamiters scored in double overtime Friday night to take game five of their seven-game KIJHL Championship series and a 3-2 lead over the Kamloops Storm. Game six goes Sunday night in Kamloops. Should the Storm push the championship series to a 7th and deciding game, it will take place at the Kimberley Civic Center Tuesday night. Game 3 of the Ice/Hitmen series goes the same night at Western Financial Place. Oh, and if you haven't been following, one of Kamloops' top players has been 15-year-old Max Patterson. Patterson, a Kootenay Ice 4th round pick in last May's WHL Bantam Draft, has notched 3 goals and 4 assists in 6 playoff games with the Storm. The 1999-born, 6'4", 165 lb forward will compete for a roster spot with the Ice next season. Patterson has played in all five games of the KIJHL championship.

OT -  Why is this a problem? It isn't, if you're the Nitros. The club drew a packed crowd of 1358 last night in their 3-2 double OT win, crowds not seen in that rink since the heydays of senior hockey in the region when the Senior Kimberley Dynamiters won the Allan Cup in 1978. If there's a game seven, you can bet that crowd will hit 1400. Competition for the hockey fan dollar.

Double OT - Big shout-out to Everett Silvertips D-man Ben Betker. The Cranbrook product - undrafted in the WHL Bantam Draft - signed an NHL contract with the Edmonton Oilers this past week. The 6'6", 220lb D-man has had a terrific season for the Tips and helped take a 1-0 opening round playoff series lead over the Spokane Chiefs last night. I played men's hockey with his dad Jeff for many years and when Ben was 12-13 he'd come out and play men's hockey with us old-timers. When he played he was a 5'7" forward. Ben left to play major midget in the West Kootenay and when he came back, was a 6'3" D-man and still growing. He played AA Midget in Cranbrook at 15 and left to play Major Midget as a 16-year-old. At 17 the Westside Warriors of the BCHL rostered the big D-man. Betker was listed by the Portland Winterhawks, played one game and was traded to the Silvertips in the deal that involved now Nashville Predators D-man Seth Jones. Betker, in his last year of junior hockey, will likely get some seasoning time with the Oilers new AHL affiliate in Bakersfield, California before a shot with the big club materializes.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Down to the playoff wire....

Solidly entertaining game to watch last night as the Ice lost nail-biter to the Red Deer Rebels, 2-1 in the shootout. With 7 games remaining and a 33-28-1-3 record, good for 70 points, nothing has been decided in terms of playoff seeding, or having clinched a spot for that matter.

1. Kudos to Rebel goaltender Rylan Toth, who stole one last night was easily the game's first star. Haven't seen a goaltender face that many quality chances in one night and still come out on top. 31 shots against and in stopping 30, 18-20 were high quality scoring chances that didn't get by him.

2. Been hearing and seeing a few taunts headed Reinhart's way of late. Not a fan of that. Criticism is fine and when it's constructive and warranted, no problem. Has he been light's out of late? I guess not. No, he's not Connor McDavid but just because he cannot carry this team on his back night-in and night-out, doesn't mean he's any less of a player. It's a grind but he's still averaging 1.45 points a game this season, off from last year's pace of 1.75 from a better team than this year's version. If you're going to criticize, basing the argument in a fact or two may help.

3. With 70 points the Ice hold down the first Wild Card spot, 3 points ahead of Edmonton and 9 points clear of Moose Jaw. Prince Albert is still in the hunt mathematical but in the era of three point games for both teams (a la, last night), it's going to be tough for either to catch a playoff spot. Moose Jaw has seven games left and can get a maximum of 14 more points (75). Kootenay's got the same amount of games left and can hit 84 and theoretically still catch Red Deer or even Medicine Hat, but it's unlikely. So five points or any combination of 3 Ice wins/Warrior losses puts the Ice into the playoffs for the 17th straight season. Kootenay's in Medicine Hat tonight.

4. The bench got awful short last night on the blueline side of things. It'll be interesting how Valiev, King, Lishchynsky and Murray handle the Hitmen or Wheaties in the first round of the playoffs, provided they make it of course.

5. 2200 at the game last night. Just under the average for the season at 2231 a game. FYI, over a thousand (1007) packed the Kimberley Civic Center last night for the Dynamiters 2-1 overtime win over Fernie to knot that series at two games a piece. There's likely be a 1000 stuffed into the Fernie Memorial Arena tonight for game five of that series. If anyone's wondering where the bulk of the Ice fan base has gone in this city, you can start by looking there.

6. The debate is heating up over the CHL Player and minimum wages along with education packages that not always guaranteed. Now NHL Player Agents - powerful ones - are calling out the CHL to start adding some flexibility to the post-secondary packages that are earned by the players. My thoughts have always been that the post-secondary program the CHL offers (one year tuition and books for every year played) is a good one but the restrictions on it are getting some real bad press for the league(s). I'm not a big minimum wage fan (the WHL was up in front of the Washington State Senate lately looking for a minimum wage exemption status) of the argument for the  simple reason that the tuition and books model works for the student/athlete if the professional dream doesn't pan out. But, that player has earned that tuition and books and should have a less restrictive access to it so that they can play pro hockey for a while and then fall back on a university degree if it doesn't pan out. Or even a cash equivalent for those who don't qualify or something along those lines. 18 months use it or lose it as it sits right now doesn't work. 3-4 years would give any 20-year-old ample time to test the pro hockey dream and make an informed decision. At the same time it gives the CHL the "student/athlete" model it's claims - much like the NCAA, only the school part of things is delayed. Some good articles out there by TSN and the Seattle Times.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Playoff Push down the stretch

It's been a month since the last blog as this get's a little hectic to keep up on a consistent basis, but as we head down the stretch into the Spring and the WHL Playoffs.

1.  A 3-2 win over the shorthanded Brandon Wheat Kings last night who were missing D Kyle Clague and F Nolan Patrick but two points nonetheless as the Ice will play the Wheaties to wrap up the four-game road swing through the Prairies tonight.

2. The Ice, with three straight shoot-out games - 2 wins and a loss - improved to 33-27-1-2 on the season with 69 points, seven clear of the Edmonton Oil Kings.

3. Ironically enough the Ice are also four points clear of the Swift Current Broncos but with the new NHL-style playoff format, catching the Broncos doesn't mean anything but home-ice advantage in the later rounds if they were to meet in the playoffs. This season the top three in each of the East and Central Divisions make the playoffs while the two next best teams in terms of total points grab the 1st and 2nd wildcard berths. As it stands right now, if the playoff were to begin today Kootenay would entertain the red-hot Calgary Hitmen in the first round. If the old conference format were in place, Kootenay would be the sixth seed and get the Tigers in the first round.

4. Drawing the Hitmen isn't a bad thing however. I'm sure the memories would be fresh of the 1st round defeat by the Ice last season and fuel the rivalry between the two clubs. The Hitmen are also a good draw in terms of attendance as well.

5. Kootenay could still catch the Red Deer Rebels as they are only four points back with 9 games, including two head-to-head, left in the season. The Rebels have two games in hand and will be difficult to catch unless they stumble.

6. Of course a playoff berth isn't assured as of this point but there is a magic number of four or 8 points. Any combination of four Ice wins or Warrior losses (or points totaling 8) give the Ice their 17th straight year in the WHL playoffs, all while in Cranbrook. It is the longest current playoff streak in the WHL.

7. Offensively, Kootenay's a deep team. It's on the blueline that one wonders if they'll have the horses to get out of the first round of the playoffs. D Tanner Lischynsky has been a welcome presence on the blueline but blueline depth could be a tough wall to break through this playoff season.

8. Speaking of D, Ice first round Bantam pick Griffen Mendel, playing his first year Midget with the Okanagan Hockey Academy club played for Team BC at the Canada Winter Games this past week. Mendel, a 6'2" rearguard eligible to play full-time next season, has also played 2 games for the Penticton Vees of the Junior A BCHL. It isn't out of the ordinary for BCHL teams to affiliate local players but it does raise some eyebrows when the top pick does it. Penticton is known for heavy recruiting of top propects - WHL prospects (Ryan Gropp of Seattle comes to mind) so something to watch for Ice fans. Kootenay has a solid group of D-men coming up but they'll be young next year.

9. Back to the playoff race, those four points behind Red Deer, brings those weekend losses a few weeks back to Moose Jaw and Saskatoon into perspective.

10. Lastly, good to see 20-year-old Mackenzie Skapski, who could have played this year in Junior, make his first NHL start and get his first win this past week with the New York Rangers' win over Buffalo. The one place Kootenay's been consistent this year is in goal with Wyatt Hoflin, however he's played the most by far of any Ice goaltender over the years. Well ahead of the pack in terms of minutes played as Hoflin's over 3350, 200 more than the anyone in the WHL. His save percentage and GAA isn't great but really the question is of fatigue. He may not get a night off until the club's playoff spot in secured and even then perhaps not. Have to feel for back-up Keenlan Williams who hasn't broken the 400 minute mark this season. And he's an 18-year-old that basically hasn't played this season. Adding insult to injury the club brought in Declan Hobbs, 16, a couple of weeks back to play two games.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Deadline came and went with a whimper; Ice stop 4-game losing skid

For a team that may have been worried about losing two of their top players to the World Juniors and if they would stay in the playoff hunt without them, getting them back has been more of a challenge than anyone thought, losing four straight since Reinhart returned with the gold medal and Valiev returned with the silver, and missing three games due to illness.

A relatively easy (on paper) trip through the prairies with Moose Jaw, PA and Saskatoon on the docket, six points were important as the club needs to beat the teams behind them. Losing to Moose Jaw but rebounding to beat PA last night, Saskatoon is on the schedule tonight in the Bridge City. The Blades, one of the WHL's worst teams but on the upswing of late, beat the Ice last Saturday night at the Rec Plex and beat the Tigers last night. At 22-21-1 on the season the Ice are in the final playoff spot but only have a 5 point cushion with a lot of time left.

1. At the deadline the Ice added D Lenny Hackman from Lethbridge, who had left the club and wasn't playing for them anyway. A 2015 12th round Bantam Draft pick went the other way, which, if you look at the draft rounds, is basically nothing as most clubs have had their fill by then and can't pick (50-man protected list) anymore anyway. He's a diminutive 19-yr-old rearguard that will provide the team some depth in light of D Tanner Faith's season-ending shoulder surgery. As mentioned previously, D Tanner Lischynsky was also kept after playing as a AP call-up from Flin Flon of the SJHL.

2. I had been told that the Ice were in on many possibilities at the deadline for a D-man and a back-up goaltender but nothing materialized.

3. With this line-up being healthy they are still a thick line-up that could push a couple rounds into the playoffs. However the prospect of the 8-hole and facing the high-flying Brandon Wheat Kings doesn't bode well. To avoid Brandon or Medicine Hat in the first round they'll have to catch Calgary or Red Deer due to the new playoff format. The top three clubs in each division are seeded 1-2 and 3-6. The two wildcards play the Division winners.

4. Tuesday the Vancouver Giants are in town for the first time in two years. (stupid WHL interlock schedule). Cranbrook native Payton Lee should get the start in goal for the Giants on the little-known 2-for-1 Tuesday nights. Get two tickets for the price of one, among other concession items.

5. Another Cranbrook product, D Ben Betker, 20, had a career night last night. The Edmonton Oiler prospect notched 4 assists for the Everett Silvertips in a 5-3 win over Spokane. Betker's got 12 points in his last 10 games.

6. I've been asked a number of questions about the recent internet rumours about the Ice relocating. One has them going to Abbotsford; another has them going to Boise, Idaho. Some questions have been posted in the comments section of the last post.

7. First, I'm not aware of any application to move the team at the league level, although, like lots on the internet forums, I've heard about the Boise application. If it's real, only the WHL Board of Governors would know if the Chynoweth family made application. There's been nothing public that I'm aware of. There's been no media on the subject at all this season.

8. The club does have a lease - arguably the best lease in the league - that was signed in 2009. It's a 15-year lease but not much else is known about it. I asked the powers that be at the City of Cranbrook some time ago about seeing a copy of the lease but they wouldn't make it available. I am a taxpayer and thought I should be able to see it but didn't have any luck. I could've pushed it, I suppose, through a Freedom of Information request but didn't.

9. On the flip side of the argument, I've also heard that the group that was supposedly close to buying the club last season has re-surfaced again and is close to making something happen. But again, nothing to substantiate; just rumour.

10. At the end of the day, it's about attendance and bums in the seats. Last season the club attracted over 80,000 to their home games. 20th in a 22-team league. That, based on a $20 average ticket price, is about $1.6 million to operate the club. The cost to run this club in the WHL is in that range - $1.5 million 5-6 years ago. It's probably closer to the $1.8-2 million range now. The average attendance for this club through 21 home dates is 2222. 10 short of the 2232 average last season with 15 home dates to go. Right now the club is 21st in the WHL attendance rankings, above only Swift Current.

That's why it's so important to get to the playoffs. The club had six home dates last season and attracted 15,781 to those six games (2630 per game). At an average $22 ticket cost, those playoff dates added $347,000 to the bottom line (minus playoff costs - bus, hotels etc) last season. Add that number to the $1.6 million in ticket sales, plus ad revenue etc, it pushes over the $2 million mark. Of course that's if the team makes the playoffs and has a run.

Swift Current, a publicly owned, small-market team that mirrors Kootenay in terms of attendance, managed to post a $200,000 profit last season. In 2011 the team lost the same amount and missed the playoffs that year. Swift had three home playoff dates of an average over 2800 last spring that undoubtedly contributed to the profit.

This season Chynoweth has already publicly said that the club will be running a six-figure deficit. Many comments on this blog state that if it wasn't for him the attendance would be better. I'm not sure how. It may go up marginally (Prince George's ownership change saw an increase from 1700 average per game last season to 2700 this season) but I doubt the uptick is as big as many speculate here in Cranbrook. I've ranted about the in-game entertainment and that the arena and the club need to get into the 21st century in terms of game entrance, giveaways and video replay clock but no one can argue about the quality of the product on the ice, and really, that's what hockey fans want, no? Wins and success.

Could the club move? There's always that risk here in the small market that is Cranbrook. There's always the issue of 9 years left on the 15 year lease signed but it's not like those haven't been fought out in the courts before.

Could the club be sold, to local owners? Perhaps, but they would face the same small-market challenges. At the end of the day, attendance needs to go the other direction, up. I would much rather see more public discussion on the issue than just those making the rounds at the rink and coffee-shop row, (and internet). The local media need to bring more awareness to the issue. Someone mentioned on the comments the Chilliwack Bruins. That club moved almost overnight to Victoria once the league realized the pro ranks (AHL) were considering moving a team there. The AHL continues to look at the possibility of a Western Division for the affiliates of western-based NHL teams, so the competition is high for markets on this side of the Rockies.

Boise? They support ECHL pro hockey to the tune of 4000 a night. Not bad. They're a big market, over 200,000 but no necessarily a traditional hockey market. They're off the beaten path too. 4-5 hours away from Tri-Cities, 6-7 away from Spokane and Portland. That's a trek for a divisional rival. The Canadian clubs are minimum 11-12 hours by bus away.

Abbotsford? Sure, it could work at a junior hockey market but they may draw in the 3-4000 range in the 7000 seat facility there. That's if the Giants okay another team moving into their 100-km area. I was told they are looking into the availability of the arena because of the Pacific Coliseum's age and location. Ron Toigo, owner of the Giants, stated publicly that the Giants have lost money over the last few years ($400,000 each year).

But at the end of the day folks, it's about supporting the home team. Like the GM or not, the product on the ice is always good. The sizzle will get better, eventually there'll be upgrades in that department but supporting junior hockey in this market is the only way it will.