The harsh reality has been a long time coming, but the Kootenay Ice were officially and mathematically eliminated from the Western Hockey League playoff race this past weekend.
It’s a tough reality for players and coaches to face, but one that has been on the horizon. It might be even tougher for fans to swallow, considering 2016 will mark the first time in 18 seasons the franchise has failed to qualify for the WHL post-season.
“Guys have understood for a little while here now that playoffs weren’t really realistic and have had to find different ways to stay motivated,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, Tuesday afternoon prior to practice at Western Financial Place. “For the most part, with the exception of a couple blips here and there, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of being consistent in our effort level. That is going to continue to be a real big focus — continuing to work to be better.
“Let’s be honest — there’s no question there will be changes here going into next year. Do you want to be on the right side or the wrong side of those changes? It’s certainly not a threat, it’s just reality. You can’t finish the way we have and not expect changes. I think there’s plenty of motivation that way for individual guys.”
With 13 games remaining in the 2015-16 WHL campaign for the Kootenay Ice (10-44-5-0), the Brandon Wheat Kings (37-18-3-2) present the next opponent when they pay a visit to Western Financial Place Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Fans don’t have to look far to find a pair of players putting in consistent efforts and key contributions for coach Pierce on a nightly basis.
Linemates Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky have progressed together over the years, both beginning their junior careers with the Ice in 2013-14. After playing second fiddle to the likes of Sam Reinhart, Jaedon Descheneau, Luke Philp and Tim Bozon, 2015-16 has been the year for Alfaro and Zborosky to step into the spotlight and take on more responsibility.
“There’s been a tremendous amount [of growth],” Pierce said of Alfaro and Zborosky. “There’s a lot that gets lost in what’s been a difficult season. But you get some time to reflect on some things and certainly the play of those two has been a real bright spot.
“There’s been nights where we’ve wanted a lot more from them and continue to push expectations. That’s something they’ve grown to appreciate a little more. Early on when we had really high expectations, they maybe thought they were unfounded and wanted to stay kind of in the shadows a little bit.
“But they’ve been thrust into it and since Christmas, I think they’ve really embraced it and done a much better job. It’s impressive for those guys to be point-a-game players without a lot of offensive help.”
With 11 points in his past five games, Zborosky (3-8-11) continues to build upon a career year. The 19-year-old Regina native has registered 24 goals, 29 assists and 53 points through 46 games — all new career highs.
“He knows where to be on the ice, he’s got a great shot and he knows when to use it,” Alfaro said of his linemate Zborosky. “He’s also a great passer. That’s an underrated part of his game.
“We work well together and I can find him for one-timers and he knows how to finish.”
With six points in his past four games, Alfaro (1-5-6) is clicking along efficiently himself. The 19-year-old Calgary native has tallied 17 goals, 22 assists and 39 points through 58 games — all new career highs as well.
“The biggest thing is confidence, you can tell that he’s very confident on the ice in his abilities,” Zborosky said of his linemate Alfaro. “He gets a lot of opportunities out there as well. When you put those two together it’s an opportunity for success.”
Last week in an 11-1 loss at Brandon, coach Pierce highlighted the play of his veterans, particularly Alfaro and Zborosky, making mention of their continued effort and battle despite the path the game took.
With the Wheat Kings in town Wednesday night, both Alfaro and Zborosky will once again be relied upon to lead the charge for a young club that is simply playing out the stretch and building towards next season.
“It’s tough, some people can look at it as there’s nothing really to play for anymore,” Zborosky said. “I still think guys have to realize that with the season we’ve had this year, everyone is fighting for a spot for next year. You can’t really take these games off. That will work over to next year.”
On top of their added offensive responsibilities, both Alfaro and Zborosky have stepped into larger leadership roles this season and it’s apparent in hearing them speak about what is a new situation for a franchise that has come accustomed to winning and qualifying for the post-season.
“It’s obviously not something we’re used to, especially for the veteran guys,” Alfaro said. “You’ve really just got to push through, keep going every day, look forward to next season and take it one game at a time.
“Just try to focus on winning these last games and going out on a good streak, playing good hockey to get rolling into next year.”
Alfaro, Zborosky and the Kootenay Ice will look to exact some revenge on the Brandon Wheat Kings Wednesday night (7 p.m.) at Western Financial Place.