Putting a season-long five-game road trip behind them, the Kootenay Ice return home to host an annual fan favourite event when the Swift Current Broncos visit Western Financial Place Saturday night.
Benefitting the Salvation Army, the annual A&W Teddy Bear, Toque and Mitten Toss will take place Saturday evening when the Kootenay Ice (6-24-2-0) score their first goal against the Broncos (8-17-3-1).
Perhaps more so than in years past, the special holiday game comes in an effort to help provide a bit of hope to those who might be a bit down on their luck.
“It’s about the community in general, trying to be good citizens and do something positive for people this time of year,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, Thursday afternoon prior to practice at Western Financial Place. “It’s an exciting thing to be a part of and help make a difference. Hopefully we can use that to generate our own enthusiasm.
“We could use some great fan support to get out of a bit of a tough time. You think about family situations — when people are down, you always have good support networks to pick them back up and show them you care.
“Everyone has been really encouraging. Our players need that. They’re no different than anybody else. Sometimes they need a boost when they’re down and hopefully the Teddy Bear Toss game can help generate that.”
It’s no secret the Kootenay Ice are down. Sitting in last place in the Western Hockey League, Cranbrook’s junior hockey heroes are mired in the midst of an eight-game losing streak and looking for a pick-me-up following a five-game road trip through the B.C. Division.
A bright spot coming out of the season-long trek came for rookie forward Noah Philp, who smashed a goose egg on his stat sheet, collecting his first-career WHL goal Tuesday evening in Prince George.
A native of Canmore, Alta., and younger brother of Ice captain Luke Philp, Noah is hoping Tuesday’s success is something he can build upon.
“It felt good. The pressure was building a little without having that one, but it was nice to finally get it out of the way,” Noah said Thursday afternoon prior to practice at Western Financial Place.
For the 17-year-old former Canmore Eagle, the transition to the WHL hasn’t been an easy one, but with one goal and five points in 31 games, the 6-foot-1 centre has eclipsed the totals he produced last season in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (one goal, three points in 31 games).
“It’s been a huge learning curve for him,” Pierce said of Noah. “Early on, he wanted to play bigger minutes in a bigger role and I understand that. Every player does. With the injuries he kind of got thrust into it and had some challenges, which I think you can expect.
“With Noah, it’s trying to find a consistent style and performance every day. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing with our top line, which he’s done on occasion, or centring our third or fourth line. We need Noah to be the same every day.
“[Tuesday in Prince George] was a real good effort from him at the end of a long road trip, which was a very good sign. I think he wants to get better and he shows that even away from the rink.”
Having an older brother around the rink to help guide him has been both a blessing and a curse of sorts for Noah.
His older brother Luke came into the season as arguably one of the most dynamic 20-year-old forwards in the Western Hockey League until he was sidelined by an ankle injury.
Having tallied 95 goals and 235 points in 247 career WHL games all with the Ice, Luke is well established as one of the more recent greats to suit up for the Kootenay Ice. It’s safe to say that shadow has cast down upon Noah, who admittedly feels the pressure of living up to the name his older brother has made in Cranbrook.
“It gets in my head a little sometimes,” Noah said. “But I’ve just got to try and worry about me. I can’t always think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to live up to his expectations.’ I just try to do the best I can.
“He’s been really helpful. He’s been a great leader to the team and to me. He’s had lots of success here. I’ve been trying to follow what he’s been doing and learning from him has been pretty helpful.”
The Kootenay Ice sit 22nd in the 22-team WHL in terms of offensive production. With only 60 goals-for through 32 games, the Ice are averaging 1.88 goals per outing.
The only other team in the league to have scored fewer than 70 goals to this point in the campaign is the Swift Current Broncos, with 66 goals through 29 games (2.28 goals per game).
With captain Philp, the team’s most dangerous offensive weapon, rendered unavailable due to an ankle injury, the Ice could certainly use his younger brother Noah to bottle his recent offensive spark moving forward.
“We’ve been struggling in the goal department, especially,” Noah said. “And I don’t think I’ve been producing as much as I should. But that’s kind of my focus a little now. I’d like to be able to help the team offensively as much as I can.”
The last time the Kootenay Ice won a game came Nov. 21 against these same Broncos — a 2-1 triumph at Western Financial Place.
With an eight-game losing streak looming ominously overhead and the excitement of the A&W Teddy Bear, Toque and Mitten Toss in the building, there’s plenty to look to for some extra jump heading into Saturday’s contest.
“That definitely gives extra motivation for scoring that goal,” Noah said. “I’m sure it will spark the team a little.”
Fans attending Saturday’s contest between the Broncos and Ice are encouraged to bring teddy bears, toques or mittens, wrapped safely in plastic bags. When the Kootenay Ice score for the first time Saturday, the bears will rain down on the ice surface at Western Financial Place.
In 2014-15, Ice forward Jaedon Descheneau tallied the Teddy Toss goal only 41 seconds into the affair.
Puck drop between the Ice and Broncos is slated for 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook.