As a new era of Kootenay Ice hockey begins with the opening of training camp Monday morning, head coach Luke Pierce is ready to establish a fresh culture in the dressing room and on the ice at Western Financial Place.
“The biggest thing is respect — not just respect for us as staff, but respect for one another as teammates,” Pierce said Sunday between fitness testing sessions at Western Financial Place. “It’s a group thing. We all know the game is a team game, but those teams that can bond together the quickest and have that respect for one another leads to greater success.
“That’s the beauty of being in a small market like Cranbrook. [The players] spend so much time together they bond well. Everything that we do — from practice, to travelling, to eating, to our games — there has to be a respect level there. That’s all earned. I don’t expect it to happen on day one. We [the coaching staff] have to earn that. They [the players] have to earn our respect as well with the way they’re going to show up and play and practice.”
Players, both rookies and veterans, showed up for the first time Sunday as Pierce and the new staff put their charges through fitness testing at Western Financial Place.
With roster turnover and the new staff both widely-discussed themes heading in, Kootenay Ice training camp is set to have a different tone in 2015 than it has in recent years.
After going 37-31-1-3 and falling in a seven-game, first-round playoff matchup with the Calgary Hitmen in 2014-15, the Ice and then head coach Ryan McGill mutually parted ways.
Captain Sam Reinhart is expected to turn pro, whether that be with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres or their American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester.
Power-play quarterback and star defenceman Rinat Valiev is expected to graduate to the professional game within the Toronto Maple Leafs organization as well.
To call the air in Cranbrook fresh is a bit of an understatement at this point. That means nothing is gifted and everything has to be earned.
“Anytime you have a new staff, a new coach, the expectations are that the players are going to want to do as much as they can to impress and stand out,” Pierce said. “Most years, your veteran guys maybe go through the motions a little bit early on in camp. I would hope and expect our veteran guys to be ready to make an impression on day one.
“I’m trying to keep my expectations neutral and tempered so I get a real fresh, good look at them right when we get started here.”
While the veteran players reported for for fitness testing first, the rookies wrapped up the day of physical exams Sunday afternoon, ahead of being the first to hit the ice Monday.
With 16 returners expected in camp, six of which are 20-year-olds vying for three roster spots, there stands to be plenty of opportunity for young faces to make names for themselves as prospect games get underway Monday.
“They have to do what they do well,” Pierce said. “It’s the same thing from my end. You feel like a first-year player here. You’re nervous. It’s your first camp. But I have to just stick to doing what I do well and not try to get outside myself and impress people in other ways.
“Everything they do has to be done with 100-per-cent effort. It doesn’t necessarily have to be done correctly right away, because that will all be stuff we’ll help teach and learn. But as long as the effort level is there and they stick to what they know best and show that and display that, they’ll be fine.”
Heading into his first season as a Western Hockey League bench boss, Pierce preaches a focus on strengths. Upstairs, his boss Jeff Chynoweth — Kootenay Ice general manager — enters his 30th season in the WHL echoing the same sentiment.
“You’ve got to come in and make an impression right off the bat,” Chynoweth said Aug. 24. “What I mean by make an impression — do what you do best. Whether that’s scoring goals, taking the body, making saves.
“Whatever you do, do it well.”
While players adjust to a new environment, new teammates and a new level of competition, Pierce finds himself facing challenges of a very similar variety.
After spending nearly six full years as head coach of the Merritt Centennials of the British Columbia Hockey League, the 32-year-old Pierce is in a new environment himself.
“It’s such a strange feeling,” Pierce said. “For me, being in Merritt for six years, it was just kind of old hat. The whole routine, you just kind of did the same thing every camp. You almost feel like a little bit of an outsider. It’s strange. But we’ll get used to each other over time.”
Players, coaches and fans alike can start getting used to the new-look Kootenay Ice beginning Monday morning.
Ice training camp is open to the public and free of charge.
Sessions begin Monday with a prospect game from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., followed by a veterans practice from 12:30 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.
The opening day of camp wraps up with a second prospects game from 4 to 6 p.m.
All on-ice sessions take place at Western Financial Place.
Kootenay Ice training camp schedule:
Monday, Aug. 3110 a.m. – Prospects Game #112:30 p.m. – Veterans practice4 p.m. – Prospects Game #2
Tuesday, Sept. 19 a.m. – Team White vs. Team Black11 a.m. – Team Blue vs. Team White1 p.m. – Goaltenders session5 p.m. – Team Black vs. Team Blue7 p.m. – Team White vs. Team Blue
Wednesday, Sept. 29 a.m. – Team White vs. Team Black11 a.m. – Team Blue vs. Team Black5 p.m. – Team Blue vs. Team White
Thursday, Sept. 36 p.m. – United Way Intrasquad Game