One year after being dragged kicking and screaming into the WHL’s Western Conference in a bid to balance the league’s conferences, even a WHL Championship and the subsequent Memorial Cup can’t placate the club’s geographical shortcomings with its B.C. division brothers. The fact remains that WHL club is a Western Conference club in name only and that it’s heart, along with the desires of its fans and the bulk of the club’s schedule lies with the foes of the Eastern Conference’s Central Division.
One year into the two-year scheduling experiment, ICE G.M. Jeff Chynoweth still isn’t satisfied it’s the best situation for the Key City club. “Not at all, actually,” said Chynoweth. “I’m not a fan of the schedule and haven’t really been since day one. That’s my personal feeling and I said that a year ago when we went into it. We went into it as a two-year plan within the new alignment in the new division. There are pro’s for the new format but Swift Current and ourselves (Swift Current was moved into the Central from the East division) are two teams that it really affects.”
The 72-game, unbalanced schedule will once again see 36 home and 36 away games beginning on the road September 20 with a doubleheader against the club that put up a seven-game battle against Kootenay in last year’s playoffs, the Prince George Cougars. Western conference commitments will see the ICE face B.C. Division opponents four times (two home, two away) while they face distant U.S. Division opponents’ Portland and Seattle three times each (one home, two away). The bulk of the schedule will again include seven game sorties against rivals’ Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Spokane. Five game sets against the Medicine Hat Tigers and Tri-City Americans and home and home dates against all five of the East Division clubs.
Like any business controlling costs are key to its success. Trivia answers such as being one of two clubs (Medicine Hat of 1972-73 being the other) to win a WHL title in both the East and Western Conferences aside, becoming a Western Conference club has its price and it’s a high one.
“The cost is the biggest thing,” offered Chynoweth. “Our rivals are Calgary and Red Deer. They’ve (the league) done a great job because we still play thirty-eight of our games against the Eastern Conference but when you’re in the Western Conference it still has an effect. Looking back at last year, thankfully we played all those B.C. teams in February and March or we would’ve never made up any ground. That’s the way the schedule just happened to work out.”
“We said we’d do it for two years and we’re a good partner (within the league) and we’ll do it again.”
That two-year trial period expires next summer but with the emergence of Everett, Washington balancing out the league at ten clubs a side, the chances of the ICE heading East in the future are probably slim. “I think the jury is still out,” said Chynoweth. “Our costs went up substantially last year and I think it’s something that’s been discussed with the league and it’s been addressed at the governor’s meeting and it’ll be addressed next year at the end of the two-year trial period.”
That being said, rivalries are built around heated playoff series such as the seven game marathon featured in round one last year against the Cougars. A few more of those, give or take the ICE fans’ collective disdain for former Cougar star Dan Hamhuis and notwithstanding the 2200 Km round-trip, a rivalry will form. “Time will tell on that,” said Chynoweth. “Let’s see how it goes this year. We didn’t draw very well in the playoffs until I think game two against Kelowna and game five against Kelowna. That’s when it really took off and that was the Western Conference final and we’d hope that you would be drawing that well at that time of year.”
“I just don’t think our fans relate as well with them (P.G., Kelowna, etc.) but playoffs build rivalries and time will tell if that will lead to big rivals. Another question is what kind of dates do you have to play them? By the time we get to the Western Conference scheduling meeting and do our games against Kelowna and Kamloops, our games this year are on three Sunday’s and a Wednesday. It’s tough to build rivalries when you don’t get the best Friday and Saturday dates.”
Quick Hits – The dreaded ‘three games in three nights’ are once again featured eight times throughout Kootenay’s schedule. They might be hard on the players but they’re ultimately for their educational benefit. “We play eight ‘three in three’s, Kamloops plays ten,” said Chynoweth. “We know that it’s important to play ‘three in three’s’ because of the education of the players. You’d rather have them because then the kids aren’t missing as much school. It’s not easy on the players all the time because of the travel involved but last year, and each year is different, we were 6-1-1 on the third game after playing three games in three nights.”…
The ICE will raise three championship banners, the Western Conference, WHL and Memorial Cup to the rafters of the Cranbrook Rec./Plex before the home opener against the Swift Current Broncos Saturday, September 28 . . . An announcement is expected this Tuesday or Wednesday on who ICE bench boss Cory Clouston’s new assistant(s) will be . . .
Graduated goaltender B.J. Boxma will look to suit for the L.A. Kings’ ECHL affiliate, the Reading Royals in the upcoming season after attending a free-agent tryout camp with the Kings. Graduated Swift Current Bronco and former ICE captain Jason Jaffray has signed a pro contract with the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL. Reuniting him with his former Kootenay teammate Steve McCarthy . . . Bryan Bridges and Nigel Dawes have been invited to the national Under-18 squad’s nine day development and selection camp in Calgary starting August 1.