Welcome to Cranbrook, Gilian Kohler.
And welcome back, Michael King.
In the most anticipated Kootenay Ice game in years, a couple of unlikely heroes set Western Financial Place into a frenzy on Friday night.
After a whirlwind summer of change, the Ice beat the Calgary Hitmen 3-2 in their 2017-18 season opener in front of 3,392 fans in Cranbrook.
King — a fourth-line sophomore — put in two first period goals and Kohler — a rookie winger from Switzerland — had the game-winner in the third.
“It was a good game by the whole team,” King said at the end of the night. “It was awesome to see so many people show up and cheer us on.”
Even prior to the game, the building was full of excitement as the Ice players were introduced to Western Financial Place’s biggest crowd in over four years.
— Brad McLeod (@bradleydmcleod) September 23, 2017
Ice alumnus and two-time Stanley Cup winner Jarret Stoll then dropped the ceremonial first puck and gave the audience even more to cheer about.
— Trevor Crawley (@tcrawls) September 23, 2017
According to head coach James Patrick, while the team was a little over-excited to start off the night, they eventually got into a groove and played a solid game.
“I think we got some kinks out of our system in the first period, but after that I thought we really shored up defensively and didn’t give up that many chances,” he said. “There was a lot to like.”
The first goal didn’t take long. Six minutes into the night, King put a puck to the net and it took a bounce off a Hitmen defender’s skate and slid past goalie Nick Schneider.
While even King wasn’t sure what had happened, it didn’t stop the Cranbrook faithful from breaking into thunderous applause.
“I just tried to put the puck on net and I saw the light go on and everybody was cheering, so I got pretty pumped up,” King said with a laugh. “I guess I scored.”
Four minutes later, King once again found the back of the net, as he took a pass right in front of the net from Sam Huston and made no mistake finding the twine.
While the team played well to finish the period, the Hitmen got on the board late with Jake Kryski scoring from the slot and sending the game into the first intermission at 2-1.
Penalties and bad blood took centre stage in the second period as both teams failed to score despite quality chances on both ends of the ice.
In the third, the Hitmen managed to take some life out of the building near the midway point with a goal from Belarusian blueliner Vladislav Yeryomenko, but the lead was short-lived.
After electric play all night, star rookie Peyton Krebs found Kohler with a cross-ice pass off the rush and the young Swiss forward buried his first-ever WHL goal.
“It was amazing,” Kohler said. “I mean, to play in front of a lot of fans, the best fans in the league — it was a very amazing feeling.”
Kohler’s goal ended up being enough and the Ice held on for a 3-2 win. Despite some pressure at the end of the night with an empty Calgary net, goalie Bailey Brkin stayed strong to the end.
Brkin, who was making his first start with the Ice and playing in only his second ever game in the WHL, was phenomenal and ended up having 35 saves while being named the game’s first star.
While he looked cool as a cucumber, Brkin admitted that he experienced his fair share of nerves.
“I honestly felt really nervous and not that confident in myself to begin with,” Brikin said. “It’s a horrible thing to say, but I get like that sometimes and I just try to push through it.
“After I stop the first shot, then I know it’s going to be a good game. I know [after that] I can stop the pucks and do well in this league.”
The offence his team provided early on helped too.
“[The two goal lead] made me a bit more comfortable with the situation,” Brkin said. “[The noise from the crowd] felt amazing [too]. I haven’t heard that in a while honestly. It’s a great feeling.”
According to Patrick, the team’s success in the opening night was the result of strong play from a lot of different players.
“I thought our fourth line gave us some great energy and some good play in the offensive zone [and] obviously [scored] a couple of goals [too],” he said. “[Krebs and Kohler] were good all night [as well] and could have probably had three [goals] between the two of them.
“[In net], Bailey gave us a really good game, a solid game in net [and] that’s all you can ask for.”
Patrick was also very pleased with the play of Tanner Sidaway, Cameron Hausinger and Colton Veloso, when it came to giving the team energy and a physical presence.
“I thought [Hausinger] was outstanding,” Patrick said. “He’s a guy who can be a fourth-liner for us, but you can throw him up to play some second line minutes and he can play a lot of different spots.
“The first half of the game, I thought the [Hitmen] were a lot more physical [and] he was one of the guys who answered the bell.
The crowd was also a big boost, according to Patrick.
“You can definitely feel the energy — it’s a big difference,” he said. “When Gilian Kohler scored, it felt good to get the goal, but just the eruption in the building was rewarding for all of us.
“[There’s] no question, playing in front of a close to packed building makes the world of difference to players. I thought it was awesome.”
Krebs agreed, saying that it was a whole new experience for him in Cranbrook.
“Some of the guys in the room, [who are] three year vets, [said] it’s the most [fans] they’ve seen,” Krebs said. “The new owners promoted [tonight] very well and it shows.”
The game was also significant in that it broke a 16-game winning streak for the Hitmen in the Kootenay-Calgary rivalry, which had been going since December 2014.
For Krebs, it was the perfect start to the season.
“The atmosphere around the rink made it pretty special to get a win and I think the fans, and us, needed that win,” he said. “For our confidence and the fans’ confidence in us this year, it’s pretty cool.
“It’s a new Ice Age and I’m excited for it.”
The Ice will look to take their high into Saturday night as they play the Hitmen in Calgary. Kurtis Chapman should get the start in the Kootenay goal and despite wanting to continue on from their win, there are also some adjustments to be made.
“I thought our turnovers in the neutral zone in the first period, really hurt us,” Patrick said. “But it [was the] home opener, and the guys were excited and they wanted to put on a show and play a little more fancy. [We want to] try to correct it and move on.”
According to King, moving forward, it’s all about the details of the game.
“[We] just [have to] do the little things right, get pucks in [and] not have as many turnovers at the blue lines,” he said. “[Then] work hard and win battles.”
Puck drop at the Scotiabank Saddledome is at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
1st Period-1, Kootenay, King 1 (Huston), 6:23. 2, Kootenay, King 2 (Sidaway, Taphorn), 10:05. 3, Calgary, Kryski 1 (Gennaro, Yeryomenko), 17:53. Penalties-Hausinger Ktn (roughing), 1:27; Gurney Cgy (high sticking), 4:21; Sidaway Ktn (interference), 10:31.
2nd Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Fyten Cgy (roughing), 3:09; Huber Cgy (major-fighting), 3:09; Sidaway Ktn (major-fighting), 3:09; Krebs Ktn (high sticking), 4:54; Gennaro Cgy (kneeing), 11:27; Gennaro Cgy (high sticking), 15:32; Sheen Ktn (checking from behind), 17:51.
3rd Period-4, Calgary, Yeryomenko 1 (Gennaro, Esposito), 7:21. 5, Kootenay, Kohler 1 (Krebs, Sheen), 7:32. Penalties-Esposito Cgy (holding), 5:00; Sheen Ktn (tripping), 8:05; LaPointe Cgy (unsportsmanlike cnd., major-fighting), 13:25; Hausinger Ktn (major-fighting), 13:25.
Shots on Goal-Calgary 17-8-12-37. Kootenay 12-7-12-31.
Power Play Opportunities-Calgary 0 / 5; Kootenay 0 / 6.
Goalies-Calgary, Schneider 0-1-0-0 (31 shots-28 saves). Kootenay, Brkin 1-0-0-0 (37 shots-35 saves).