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Kootenay Ice face familiar foe in dawn of ‘new Ice age’

First game in Matt Cockell era sees team take on former general manager and the Calgary Hitmen
Kootenay Ice forward Brett Davis takes a faceoff against the Calgary Hitmen during the last game of the 2016-17 season at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. (Brad McLeod Photo)

It’s David versus Goliath, with a twist. The part of Goliath will be played by the man who spent his life in the role of David.

Before the Kootenay Ice’s opener to the 2016-17 season, then owner and general manager Jeff Chynoweth described the Ice’s rivalry with the Calgary Hitmen as ‘David vs. Goliath’.

The Ice were set to take on the Hitmen in a back-to-back series to open the new year and Chynoweth was comfortable in his underdog role with the small-town Cranbrook franchise.

One year later, the story is the same but with the actors all switched around. After his family sold the Ice in March, Chynoweth took on the job of general manager with his former archrivals.

Kootenay, meanwhile, was purchased by a Winnipeg investor duo, Matt Cockell and Greg Fettes, and Cockell relocated to the Key City to become the team’s new president and general manager.

Now, Cockell and his new staff are the little guys hoping to defeat Chynoweth and his mighty Calgary squad.

“I’ve said before that I want to win every night, but these two games [against Kootenay] are important, I’m not afraid to tell you that,” Chynoweth told Rob Kerr and Pat Steinberg of Calgary’s Sportsnet 960 ‘The Big Show’ radio program.

As for the Cranbrook side, it’s been a whirlwind summer for everyone involved in the Kootenay Ice. There’s a new coach, several new players and even the mascot will look different tonight.

The new energy should breathe life back into the Hitmen-Ice love-to-hate affair, which has had some excitement taken out of it due to 16 straight Hitmen wins in the series dating back to December 2014.

New head coach James Patrick, however, is not worried about anything that’s happened before his arrival.

“I don’t know what’s happened in the past and I’m just focused on [this] game,” he said. “It’s a divisional game so that makes it more important [but]we want to just focus on our team and how we’re going to play.”

The Ice are entering the regular season on a hot streak, having won their last two preseason games, including the finale against the Hitmen in Crowsnest Pass. Nevertheless, the coach wants to set the right tone early.

“[Calgary] checked really hard [and] played with a lot of pace [in preseason], so I I want us to take short shifts [and] get everyone be into the game [early],” Patrick said. “30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, get the pucks deep, try to get into a fore-check [and] see if we can create any pressure that way.”

The Kootenay lineup will be slightly different from the one they had in preseason. The team made a few trades after last weekend and gave up forward Jake Elmer, while acquiring two 20-year-old forwards: Alec Baer from the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Colton Veloso from the Portland Winterhawks.

According to Patrick, the new players have integrated fairly seamlessly into practice with the Ice.

“It’s been relatively smooth for them because they’re veterans of this league and they’ve played for some good organizations,” he explained. “They’re really experienced Western Hockey League people [and] both came from great organizations. We’re trying to bring their leadership to our team [and] both of them are happy to be here.”

The team will also have top-centreman Brett Davis back with them, after he spent the past few weeks with the Dallas Stars at their prospects tournament and training camp.

“[Davis] is going to be a big part of our team [and] I know he just played against really good competition, so I think that’ll put him in good position to start off strong for us,” Patrick said. “[Having our complete roster for the home opener] is huge for us. I don’t think we have the same depth as [some other teams] right now, but when we’re healthy, I like our team.

“I think we’ve got three lines that can score and one can check anyone.”

While Patrick wouldn’t reveal his cards when it comes to their starting goaltender for tonight, he said earlier in the week that both Bailey Brkin and Kurtis Chapman would get starts over the weekend.

Both goalies are new to the organization and are expected to battle for the team’s starting position in net.

As for the excitement and pressure of opening night for the new ‘Ice age’, which should draw the biggest crowds that this franchise has seen in awhile, Patrick sees no downside to it.

“As a coach, I just want to get into it [and] I know there’s a lot of excitement from the players [too],” he said. “I think it’s important to treat [our fans] to an eventful night.

“There will be nerves [but] they’re good, because [it means] guys want to succeed. You’re in a competitive arena and nerves always play a part.”

The home opener starts at 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place tonight. It will be a festive event that includes a tailgate party at Balment Park from 4 to 6 p.m. and will have a special guest in Jarret Stoll.

Stoll, an Ice alumnus who played four seasons in Cranbrook from 1998 to 2002 and was a part of the Memorial Cup winning Kootenay team, became an NHLer who won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014.

Following the game, the Ice and Hitmen have a rematch in Calgary at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday at 7 p.m.

ICE CHIPS: Kaeden Taphorn is entering the season with an upper body injury. According to Patrick, he’s still “awhile away from getting full contact [in practice]” and won’t play over the weekend.