The WHL resumes on Friday night as the Kootenay Ice get back in action against the Spokane Chiefs.
It will be a special night for the city, which will honour Cranbrook native Scott Niedermayer’s hockey hall of fame career with a pre-game ceremony and puck drop.
The Chiefs feature the league’s top scorer in Mitch Holmberg, who has collected 37 goals and 37 assists for 74 points in 35 games. Paired up with Holmberg is fellow overage forward Mike Aviani, who is sixth in the points race. The two snipers have combined to score roughly half the team’s goals so far in the campaign.
Barring any injuries, the Chiefs should have a full roster, while Kootenay is without captain Sam Reinhart, who is competing with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship and rookie defenceman Troy Murray, who is with Team West at the U17 World Hockey Challenge in Nova Scotia.
Two prospects have been called up in Dylan Overdyk and Austin Wellsby, who will join the team to cover those absences.
The first half of the season has been a little up and down for the Ice, which have struggled a bit to find consistency in their game. Injuries in goal, defence and up front haven’t helped the situation either.
However, the team proved just how important the second half of the season is last year, rallying to 25 wins and earning a 15th consecutive playoff spot.
“I’d say we definitely got a long ways to go right now,” said Austin Vetterl, after their final game of the pre-Christmas schedule against Lethbridge. “Coming into the year, we had a lot of veterans, we had a lot of hype around the team this year and I think we can do a little better.
“18-16, I guess is okay, but we’re a better-than-okay team.”
Running up to the break, Kootenay was running three lines up front because of injuries and turned overeager Zach McPhee to a defenceman—a position he is pretty familiar with.
“I played there growing up, actually, pretty much all the way through minor hockey until I came into the league at 16,” said McPhee, “so it’s obviously been a little bit of a learning curve for me going back there, but it’s not too big of a change.”
Like Vetterl, McPhee said he thinks the team has more to give.
“I think we’ve come a long way in some areas and I think we can grow in others, for sure,” McPhee said. “I think we have to get more consistent in our play. We can’t just have a good game and then peel off the game after that.”
NOTES: Kootenay was missing Ryan Chynoweth, Jagger Dirk, Tanner Faith and Rinat Valiev to injuries before the break. As of the last injury report on Dec. 17, Chynoweth and Dirk were upper-body—one week, while Valiev was lower-body day-to-day. Faith is still out indefinitely with an upper-body injury.