First off, a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to any and all looking in.
From Ice-land in Cranbrook last night the Spokane Chiefs scored off a hard-hit, turnover on Ice D Joey Leach last night with Chief forward Todd Fiddler cashing-in on a hard wrist-shot that beat G Mackenzie Skapski in the second period. It was all the Chiefs would need in this goaltending duel as both Skapski and Chiefs Goaltender Eric Williams put on a clinic last night at WFP.
The Chiefs, at 24-10-1, sit 2nd in the U.S. Division with 49 points while the Ice are the opposite at 10-24-1 with 21 points. The Ice have lost four straight but will have another shot at Chiefs tonight in Spokane. The rematch is part of the WHL's free broadcast package over the holidays. Details are here. You'll have to log-in and/or create a user name but it's relatively painless and Spokane's broadcast is pretty good.
Crowd was pretty good last night at 2717, the second largest of the season after the School Spirit night against Brandon that drew over 3000 with the local schools selling about 800 or so discount tickets. The average, if you're keeping track of such things, is at 2318 announced over the 20 home dates this season - almost 500 off of the 2800 regular season average last season. I would expect another big crowd for the New Year's Eve tilt Monday night against the Hitmen.
Lots of league chatter about the possibility of Nanaimo getting a relocated or expansion franchise, and of course Kootenay's name is bandied about quite a bit lately with the attendance drop. I attempted a month or so ago to get some lease information that the Ice signed two years ago from the city but other than it's a 15-year agreement (13 now) and that it doesn't include any type of low attendance escape clause, the club is pretty much staying put. I was told the information wasn`t for public knowledge and half thought about a freedom of information request, being that the deal is with a public entity. If someone pushed hard enough I suppose the information could be made public.
There's been a few rumors out there about some locals trying to make an offer for the club but they're just that, rumors, with little substance. As to the attendance drop, I commented to another fan last night that I wonder why, exactly, fans either decide to come to the game or, in turn, decide not to. Is it cost? Wins? Level of effort or play? If it`s the latter, then you`ll rarely be disappointed. You can see the seeds of success this team will have in 1-2 seasons. They did everything but score last night.
Prince George still struggles mightily at the gate, averaging 1960 this season while Swift Current still hovers at 2136 so far this season, so Ice attendance isn`t the lowest in the league but teams like Prince Albert and Moose Jaw (new rink) have surpassed the Ice on the average attendance ladder.
Nanaimo still doesn`t have a WHL rink - with the Frank Crane Arena at 3000 capacity - and the appetite for a new one not exactly overflowing, but I do wonder how long until somebody looks at the Island city of 83,000 as a new home to WHL hockey given the success so far - at least at the gate - of Victoria. Chilliwack is still bandied about but I doubt those fans would be all that receptive after being taken when the team left for Victoria.
Onto more hockey news; F Colin Shirley, 16, is with Team Western at the World U-17 tournament in Quebec. He got a goal as Western beat Slovakia 5-2 in exhibition action yesterday. Cranbrook`s Peyton Lee is in the nets for Team Pacific at the tourney. Waiting with his WHL club in Vancouver with the Giants is the starter`s job that he`s practically had over the last month anyway. G Liam Liston, 19, retired and went to school to the U of A in Edmonton. It`ll be easy to cheer for Lee if your an Ice-fan and wanting a clear shot at that Number 1 overall Bantam Pick next spring. The Giants, at 9-26 and 18 points, are 3 points back of the Ice for the WHL`s bottom rung on the ladder. Of course it`s a lottery draft for the six teams that miss the WHL Playoffs but the team with the worst record has the overwhelmingly best chance at the number one pick.
If you`re watching that race, F Tyler Benson - 5`10``, 165lbs - of the South Side Athletic Club in Edmonton leads the Alberta Major Bantam League scoring race with 100 pts (39 goals, 61 assists) in 22 games. Current Portland Winterhawk and Team Canada WJC forward Ty Rattie has the AMBHL record with 75 goals and 56 assists for 131 points so Benson can top the record with 11 games left and averaging just under 5 points a game. Benson is on pace for about 160 points. The goal record should be safe at Benson`s current pace for 58 goals on the season but the points record, barring a slump or injury, should fall.
The consensus Top WHL Prospects for the 2013 Bantam Draft:
1. F Tyler Benson - SSAC Edmonton AMBHL
2. D Kyle Clague - Lloydminster AMBHL
3. F Sam Steel - Sherwood Park AMBHL
4. F Jaeger White - Burnaby Winter Club
5. D Dante Fabbro - Burnaby Winter Club
6. F Parker Aucoin - Calgary Northstars AMBHL
7. F Brett Howden - Eastman Selects - Manitoba AAA Midget (playing up - 8g, 11a - 19 pts in 25 gms), younger brother of Quinton.
8. F Nolan Patrick - St James Bantam - Manitoba (James Patrick`s nephew).
The top two in Benson and Clague are pegged at can`t-miss, top prospects, franchise players. The rest of the list is pretty good too.
As the trade deadline nears for the rebuilding Ice, what is the market like for a couple of 20-year-olds in D Joey Leach or F Brock Montgomery? What would they fetch in return in a seller`s market? With only four 1993`s on the roster - D Tanner Muth, D Jagger Dirk, F Eric Benoit and F Zach McPhee - is one of them available at the deadline for the right price?
Those are the impact players I believe would be available in this rebuilding phase the Ice are going through. Depending on what they would return - draft picks are nice but don't help much in the next year or two - could the Ice wrestle a quality 16,17 or 18-year-old for one or more of the above? Deadline is January 10.
Speaking of trades, the former 1st overall WHL Bantam Pick in 2010; F Alex Forsberg, went home over the Christmas break from the Prince George Cougars and decided not to return, asking for a trade. That should make things really interesting as the trade deadline nears. Forsberg, 17, with 9 goals, 10 assists and 19 points in 31 games heading into his NHL Draft year, wasn`t among NHL Central Scouting`s preliminary Top 25 WHL Skaters. Just a note on my list above of top Bantam prospects, of the first round picks in the 2010 Bantam Draft, only 7 of them were ranked (Sam Reinhart isn`t eligible until next year) among the CSB`s Top 25. Meaning that draft hype is just that, hype, until they play the game. Until a deal is worked out Forsberg will be playing with the SJHL`s Humboldt Broncos, who hold his Jr A rights.
Again with Forsberg and the Cougars and the franchise. We talk about dips in attendance and the first season in 14 to miss the playoffs this year (still a maybe, though looking more and more likely), but Prince George doesn`t seem to every get a break or even make their own breaks. Crowds of less than 1500 in the city of 75,000 plus and not even a sniff of a WHL championship. No matter how much you think things are down with the hometown team, things can always be worse.....
On the World Junior front I have but one observation - besides the obvious goaltending debate that hasn`t simmered down although Subban is 2-0 - although the Russian city of Ufa is halfway around the world, why wouldn't tournament organizers attempt to have Canada`s gametimes in the morning here? Yes, they want the home squad to have the evening times (6-9AM Pacific to Eastern time here) and the crowds there are good for the Russian games but the TV audience in Canada is the bread and butter for this tournament (hence the board signage in the rink being completely TSN sold for a Canadian market - Telus etc). So why would they attempt to schedule more than one Canadian game at the more desirable morning timeslot rather than the 2AM Pacific to 5AM Eastern slot? Call me old but getting up at 7AM this morning to watch Russia-Germany is much more desirable than staying up to 3AM to watch.
We`ll end things with the Kris Knobluach watch. The former Ice coach is now 4-5 with the rebuilding Erie Otters of the OHL. They lost 6-1 last night to Owen Sound but were without their super phenom F Connor McDavid who is all of 15-yrs-old and the third player to be granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada to play Major Junior full-time. (John Tavares, Aaron Eckblad last season). McDavid is playing for Team Ontario at the U-17 tournament as a underage there too. At 18 goals and 22 assists in 35 games this season for 40 points, the 15-year-old`s comparison`s to the next `Sydney Crosby`aren`t too far off.
Would also be remiss in not mentioning Chief Assistant Coach Jon Klemm - acting as head coach in Don Nachbaur`s absence as an assistant at the World Junior`s with Team Canada - got the win in his former hometown last night. Klemm also got engaged over the holidays so congrats to him.
Calgary Hitmen are here to ring in the New Year Monday night. Gametime is 5PM.