Youth took centre stage as the Kootenay Ice opened their season in front of 2,800 fans with a 5-3 win over the Calgary Hitmen at Western Financial Place on Saturday.
Rookie Connor McClennon scored twice, while Brett Davis, Cole Muir and Peyton Krebs also hit the score sheet for the Ice. Goaltender Duncan McGovern 33 saves in his opening night debut.
“I’m really happy for our guys, happy to start the season on the right foot, happy that there were a lot of positives out there,” said Ice head coach James Patrick. “A lot of nerves, a lot of emotion, a lot of young guys trying to do too much in front of the home crowd, everything you expect in an opening night game — we saw it all.
“But I still thought we found a way, we fought through.”
McClennon, a second overall pick during the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, made his regular season debut last year, getting some time with the club at the end of the season. He led the Ice in points with three goals and four assists in six games during the preseason.
Patrick said McClennon has a good shot and the offensive instincts to be a dangerous player every time he steps out onto the ice.
“He had a great camp and his training camp games were just like tonight, so again, it’s exciting,” said Ice head coach James Patrick. “His whole game is going to get better, he’s going to get stronger, and over the next couple of years, he’s going to be real good.”
With a pregame ceremony, the club introduced their roster and hockey operations staff before former personalities connected with the championship teams in 2000, 2002 and 2011 were featured at centre ice.
Those dignitaries included former owner, president and general manager Jeff Chynoweth, former coaches Colin Patterson and Corey Clouston, alumni Nathan Lieuwen and Colin Sinclair, as well as Darcy Ewanchuk, the current equipment manager who held the same role from 1999-2007.
Kryski opened the scoring for the Hitmen halfway through the first period for an early lead, but the Ice stormed back with two late-period goals.
Brett Davis tallied the first goal of the regular season in home territory, snapping a wrist shot past Calgary netminder Carl Stankowski. Less than a minute later, McClennon got his first of the night, tipping a shot from Davis Murray into the back of the net.
Heading into the second frame, the Ice kept up the pressure.
Krebs got an early goal, and McClennon followed up shortly after with a powerplay effort to pad a three-goal lead.
However, the Hitmen came to life in the latter half of the period, as Coleman notched a shorthanded marker, and Kryski secured his second of the night.
Muir found himself on the receiving end of a tic-tac-toe passing play and beat Stankowski for the insurance goal near the end of the second period.
While McClennon got a lot of attention due to his offensive prowess, another significant rookie also made his debut.
Carson Lambos suited up for his first-ever regular season WHL game and acquitted himself well. The second overall pick from the 2018 WHL Draft won’t be sticking around due to league age restrictions and will be heading back to Winnipeg for another season with the Rink Hockey Academy.
However, even as a 15-year-old, his skill was on stark display.
Patrick said Lambos was the best defenceman on the ice between Kootenay and Calgary’s last exhibition matchup in Alberta and is capable of playing in the WHL right now.
“He’s played so well we just felt he deserved the opportunity to start the season for us, experience it, experience the opening night, experience the crowd, the tailgate party, the band playing and the whole atmosphere,” Patrick said. “I think it’d be so exciting for him. He loved every minute of camp. I think it’ll send him off on a real good note. We know he’s going to be good; he’s going to be even better next year.”
Lambos said he has been soaking up all the advice from the WHL veterans over the course of training camp and exhibition season and was excited to make his regular season debut.
“It was good; it was definitely a faster pace than I’ve ever seen before or what I’m used to,” Lambos said. “Just kind of taking it in, in the first period and as the game went on, felt a bit more comfortable. The atmosphere was unreal, the fans made it great. It was something I won’t forget, for sure.”
Pregame festivities kicked off with a tailgate party in front of Western Financial Place, while a new in-house band — Mile High Club — rocked out up on the concourse during the intermissions.