The last time the Kootenay Ice played a game in Cranbrook’s Memorial Arena, Eli Lieffers and Loeden Schaufler were far too young to know what a hockey puck was, let alone dream of skating in the Western Hockey League.
With the Ice set to host the Lethbridge Hurricanes in WHL pre-season action at Cranbrook’s Memorial Arena Tuesday night at 7 p.m., the two 15-year-old prospects will have exhilarating memories to add to the bank as they are expected to make their WHL debuts.
“I’m kind of nervous, but I’m really excited for it,” said Lieffers, a fourth-round selection (78th overall) of the Ice at the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft. “I just want to get out there. I’m going to try to do what I can do and work hard.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet…Just to get out there and have the experience is really good.”
While Lieffers and Schaufler won’t forget Tuesday night, fans of the Kootenay Ice will access their own memory banks and reminisce on the early beginnings of what has become one of the WHL’s most successful franchises since the late 1990s.
After relocating to the East Kootenay from Edmonton following the 1997-98 WHL season, the Ice called Cranbrook’s Memorial Arena home for two seasons before moving into Western Financial Place to open the 2000-01 campaign.
“I’m pretty excited to see how nervous I get coming up on Tuesday,” said Schaufler, a third-round selection (56th) of the ice at the 2015 Bantam Draft.
“I don’t even know what I’m going to think when we go out for warmup, even. I’m going to guess it’s going to be pretty loud. It’s a pretty big day.”
The last time the Ice played a game at the Memorial Arena it turned out to be a pretty big day as well.
The date was May 12, 2000. It was Game 5 of the WHL championship series.
The hosts knocked off the visiting Spokane Chiefs by a 2-1 final to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, before putting the finishing touches on the franchise’s first WHL title the next day in Spokane.
Lieffers wasn’t even two months old at the time, while Schaufler hadn’t even been in the world for a month.
No title will be handed out Tuesday night, but perhaps the groundwork will be laid for a future championship.
Head coach Luke Pierce is also set to make his WHL debut, officially opening a new era for the Kootenay Ice after the departure of longtime head coach Ryan McGill this off-season.
“I’m just looking forward to seeing a different jersey out there and having a real opponent so that we can start to assess some of these guys a little better,” Pierce said following a week of scrimmages and intrasquad games through training camp. “I’m looking forward to being in that atmosphere, that environment. We toured it last week and there’s a lot of feel and history in there.”
A total of 35 players remain on the Ice roster heading into pre-season action, meaning there is still plenty of work to be done in the assessment department.
Though Lieffers and Schaufler represent the next generation of young talent, they won’t be in Ice threads as 15-year-olds this year. The pre-season offers them opportunity to learn the expectations and level of play they will be expected to rise to when they are eligible for roster slots come the 2016-17 season.
“For them, I’m sure they’re going to be extremely nervous and that’s normal,” Pierce said. “We want to try and protect them as much as we can.”
Schaufler, a 6-foot, 170-pound defenceman originally from Dewinton, Alta., spent the 2014-15 campaign with the Notre Dame Bantam ‘AAA’ Hounds. He is slated to suit up on a defence pairing alongside a former Hound and veteran of three WHL seasons — Tanner Faith.
“I think he’s going to learn as much from just being out there with Tanner as he will from playing against different opponents,” Pierce said. “For him, it’s just feeling comfortable and seeing what the pace is like compared to camp, which it’ll be so much higher.”
Lieffers registers as a lanky 6-foot-2, 155-pound forward. He spent the 2014-15 season with the Saskatoon Bantam ‘AA’ Maniacs and is expected to have his fair share of veteran support Tuesday as well.
“He’s a pretty fearless kid and fearless player, so I think he’ll be fine,” Pierce said. “Again, it’s something they can take back when they go back to their club teams and hopefully try and play at that type of tempo over this next year of development.”
Development is the name of the game at this point for an Ice squad turning over a new page following the departure of Sam Reinhart and Tim Bozon, along with the expected graduation of Rinat Valiev to the professional ranks.
The Ice cut down its roster to 35 players following camp, including three goaltenders, 15 defencemen and 17 forwards.
Heading into Tuesday, both Lieffers and Schaufler are keeping it simple in preparation for their WHL debuts. That means sticking to the regular routine.
“You have a ritual that you do every day before a game,” Lieffers said. “If you feel like you get in a groove, that’s how you feel less nervous. That’s what helps me.”
“You just do the same thing you do to prepare for any other game, any intrasquad game,” Schaufler said. “Just do the same thing.”
Following Tuesday’s home exhibition date with the Hurricanes, the Ice head south of the border for the Tri-City Americans’ annual pre-season tournament in Kennewick, Wash.
The Ice play three games in Kennewick, including Thursday, Sept. 10 versus the Americans, Friday, Sept. 11 versus the Seattle Thunderbirds and Saturday, Sept. 12 against the Prince George Cougars.