For as long as he can remember, Austin Gray has been a goal scorer. And that’s what he wants to develop into at the Western Hockey League level now that he has a fresh start with the Kootenay Ice.
“I haven’t been able to get on the scoresheet yet, but I know I’ll break through,” Gray said prior to practice at Western Financial Place Thursday afternoon. “That’s kind of the role I’d like to play, but whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I want to do.
“Obviously, I’d like to get a win. I haven’t had a win. Haven’t won in the jersey yet, but so far I’ve been enjoying it. I think we’re getting better… and there are good things to come.”
The Ice acquired Gray from the Portland Winterhawks in a multi-player deal back on Nov. 29, in exchange for a seventh-round pick in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.
“I think he fits in real well with our group,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, Thursday afternoon prior to practice at Western Financial Place. “He seems to get along with the guys and he’s eager to get better and improve his game. He’s got lots of questions, which is great.
“Everyone has to keep in mind, he’s essentially another first-year player for us… Considering all that, he’s fit in admirably.”
With only 14 WHL games to his credit through parts of three seasons with the Winterhawks and now the Ice, Gray has plenty of learning and growing left to do, but his eagerness is an encouraging sign as far as coach Pierce is concerned.
“He’s got to add some strength,” Pierce said. “He’s a pretty slight kid and that makes it tough in this league to be ultra-effective. But he’s able to do it by using his brain and that’s an asset. As he gets stronger and quicker, I think he’ll be a real good player for us.
“So far, it’s just being sharp every shift and making sure he’s in the right spots and keeping the game simple, no different than what we’re asking from a lot of guys.”
There’s no question the Ice could use a breakthrough from the 18-year-old Gray, who put up 25 goals and 64 points in 37 games with the Cariboo Cougars of the B.C. Major Midget League last season.
Having scored 64 goals through 34 games, the Ice own the most anemic offense in the Western Hockey League, though it begs to be reminded the team has suffered a mind-numbing run of injuries.
Elite scorer Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder surgery) has missed 32 games and is expected to miss the duration of the 2015-16 campaign. Captain and leading scorer Luke Philp (ankle surgery, head) has missed 12 games and counting and second-leading scorer Zak Zborosky (lower body) missed 13 games.
With five other forwards missing varying amounts of time due to injury, there was plenty of opportunity for Gray to step right in.
The fresh start was a welcome one for the native of Prince George, B.C., and he was certainly a sight for sore eyes when he joined the injury-riddled Ice Dec. 1 in Kamloops.
“I’d been talking with my agent about where I would like to be traded, so I kind of knew the phone call was coming,” Gray said. “[Cranbrook] was one of the places I was hoping to be traded to. I was happy when I got the phone call.”
With a few weeks under his belt to acquaint himself with new systems, new teammates and a new coaching staff, Gray is looking forward to finding the scoresheet and getting a win.
Though he hasn’t found the back of the net yet, Gray is certainly willing to do whatever it takes to help his team, as evidenced by the fact he dropped the gloves with 20-year-old WHL veteran Luke Harrison back on Dec. 8 in Prince George.’
“To be honest, I was just sick of getting pushed around in my hometown,” Gray said with a chuckle. “I finally had enough of it. I couldn’t score a goal, so I thought I’d get beat up in front of my friends and family.”
While the physical side of the game might not be top priority for the 6-foot, 162-pound Gray, he isn’t shy when it comes down to it.
“When it’s there, I’ll take it,” Gray said. “I’m not afraid to go into the corner with someone bigger than myself. I don’t go out of my way to make big hits, but if the hit’s there I don’t shy away from it.”
The next opportunity for Gray to perhaps find the scoresheet and help his new club get a win comes Friday as the Ice (6-26-2-0) travel to Red Deer for a rematch with the Rebels (22-11-0-0).
Tuesday at Western Financial Place, the Ice battled the Rebels hard in a 4-2 loss, with plenty of positives to build upon heading into the final weekend before the holiday break.
“We’ve got to make sure that we try to find ways to capitalize offensively a little more with the zone time that we do create,” Pierce said looking to Friday night. “We’ve got to be a little cleaner coming out of our end with possession and we’re going to need our special teams to contribute.
“Our penalty kill was really good [Tuesday] and you may not get a lot of power-play opportunities, but we’ve got to find a way to capitalize.”
Puck drop between the Ice and Rebels is set for 8 p.m. (Rogers Sportsnet) from the Enmax Centrium in Red Deer.
After Friday’s tilt, the Ice continue north to visit the Edmonton Oil Kings (13-18-3-0) Saturday at Rexall Place before taking a holiday breather.
The Ice return to action Sunday, Dec. 27 at 4 p.m. when they host the Calgary Hitmen (21-12-1-1) at Western Financial Place.
Notes: Ice D Tanner Lishchynsky, who suffered a lower-body injury Tuesday, is expected to miss approximately two to four weeks…
Video highlights: Red Deer Rebels 4 at Kootenay Ice 2 (Tuesday, Dec. 15)