The Kootenay ice, me, the past, the future

There’s the past, and there’s the future.

This is the past.

Twenty years ago to the day, the Kootenay Ice, first season in Cranbrook, were fighting for a final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with the expectation they would end up facing the powerful Calgary Hitmen — the top-ranked team in Canada that season. The Ice ended up taking the Hitmen to seven games.

The next season, 1999-2000, was one of the greatest hockey seasons Cranbrook has ever experienced. What a playoff that was — Red Deer in Round 1; then Swift Current; taking out Calgary in five games in Round 3; Spokane in six games to win the league. The Memorial Cup in Halifax that year was almost anti-climactic.

I moved to Cranbrook the same autumn as the Kootenay Ice, and that ranks as the first of my two favorite Ice memories in my 20-year association with them. Those first two seasons in the Memorial Arena. Seating 1,600 and jam-packed every game, loud enough to make your ears ring, pucks bouncing off the wall over your head, those hounds in the “Dawg Pound” roaring at the opposing team and swishing around their paper cups full of who knows what, Ryan McGill shouting at the referees — and you were right on top of the action. You could almost walk right out into it, and the action was great! That’s when the future still lay ahead. That’s when hockey was king!

2002 was my other great memory. The high water mark. Coming back from three games down to beat Prince George in Round 1of the playoffs; then Seattle; then Kelowna; then Red Deer in Game 6 of the WHL championship series. 4,500 people in the Rec Plex. High drama indeed.

Then the Memorial Cup in Guelph, which I had the privilege of covering for the Townsman. I was standing beside Ryan McGill in the media scrum after the Ice won the national championship, when the players dumped the celebratory bucket of gatorade over him — most of the gatorade washed over me. One of the great honours of my life.

Speaking of that Game 6 against Red Deer in 2002 — the last time I remember the Rec Plex being sold out was in 2014, when Tim Bozon returned to Cranbrook after his near fatal brush with meningitis. He came out pre-game and waved, and the crowd went wild. Then the Ice played and beat the Hitmen. Whenever the Ice scored, the crowd took the roof off the place, and I realized how much I missed that percussive, deafening, joyous roar.

There are so many Kootenay Ice memories for me, and I hope they never fade.

* * *

Then there’s the future.

A few years ago, when the possibility of the Ice leaving town took on greater shape, I was aghast. As mentioned, I moved here at the same time as the Ice, and at first couldn’t imagine the town without the team.

Then one day, I was in the Memorial Arena, and looking at all the banners hung aloft there — The Cranbrook Colts, the Cranbrook Royals et al — and I started to get a sense of the rich hockey traditions that existed here pre-Kootenay Ice. And I thought how great it would be to return to those days.

This is why I would advocate for Cranbrook’s entry into the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League — the KIJHL. Joining this cult league would mean we would be surrounded by natural rivals like Kimberley, Fernie, Creston, Invermere, and Nelson, whose passionate and partisan fans would travel to Cranbrook with their teams, and who would rouse our own fans. It would be a noisy, boisterous atmosphere at those games, like how the Cranbrook Colts’ games of old used to be, and how the early years of the Kootenay Ice used to be.

Real, honest, sporting rivalries are what unite a community and also join communities together. That’s the real greatness of sports, the roots out of which the bigger leagues grow.

Cranbrook has had its brush with Tier 1 greatness. Twenty years ago I opined in this space that Cranbrook couldn’t be a sleepy small town anymore, that we must grow with the times by building a new arena.

I am not in favour of a Junior A team coming here — either the BC Junior Hockey League or the Alberta Junior Hockey League. The same problem would apply to these leagues — we are in a geographically awkward spot for either. Travel, like with the Kootenay Ice, would be the largest expense by far. And as with the Kootenay Ice, if it was hard for fans to get invested in a rivalry with, say, the Tri-City Americans, a rivalry with the Cowichan Valley Capitals or the Lloydminster Bobcats would be equally compelling — that is to say, not very.

On the other hand, though a KIJHL team in Cranbrook is, in my view, devoutly to be wished, it is very unlikely to happen. Again, it’s geographically awkward, but for the opposite reason. A team in Cranbrook would mean that the KIJHL would be too overweighted in its southeastern corner. And apparently, it doesn’t make sense for that league to move to a community that is three or four times bigger than the other communities in the league. And besides, nearby Kimberley, Creston and Fernie would lose the player base that they draw from.

So while I argue that Cranbrook, having had its brush with big city hockey greatness, should revert back to its sleepy small town hockey greatness, this won’t happen soon. In fact, no Junior hockey greatness at all, for the time being. Luring any manner of league back to Cranbrook looks like a pretty tall order.

And so, we will abide in hockey limbo.

There’s a profound irony here. The arrival of the WHL meant the demise of the Cranbrook Colts. This led to the collapse of the Rocky Mountain Junior League, and nearly the end of the Kimberley Dynamiters. Remember back in Kootenay Ice heyday, the travails of the Nitros? They nearly folded, then were forced to play an interlocking schedule with the America West Junior Hockey League. Those were strange days in Junior B.

But as the fortunes of the WHL in Cranbrook began to sink, the KIJHL began to prosper. These days, the ‘K’ is thriving, and exciting, and in a few weeks the WHL in Cranbrook will be a fading memory, leaving only a nice rink with a roof desperately needing repairs, and some banners hanging from the roof proclaiming hockey glory from the first decade of the century.

Speaking of which, let us hope the City, in end-of-lease negotiations with the team, insist those victory banners stay in Cranbrook. Otherwise, in another decade, all trace of the Kootenay Ice will have been long forgotten.

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