The Kootenay Ice are hoping to do their part in developing local high-level hockey players by partnering with a new regional minor hockey program based out of Kimberley.
The new affiliation with the EK Ice Avalanche of the District Zone League is part of new programming by BC Hockey that includes bantam and midget minor hockey teams.
The partnership will involve a coach mentoring system between the two organizations that will include progressive player development tools and support from the entire Ice club.
“Just for minor hockey in the East Kootenay region, it’s a great opportunity for young players to develop and try and build a program — I know there are a lot of academies popping up around the country and I just think for the kids, it’s going to be a good opportunity for a program to grow,” said Ice head coach James Patrick.
Cranbrook is no stranger to home grown high-level hockey talent, with numerous NHL alumni such as Scott and Rob Niedermayer, Brad Lukowich, Corey Spring and Jon Klemm, who joined the Kootenay Ice coaching staff during the off-season.
However, the challenge for young players in the local minor hockey system is they have to move to larger centres such as Lethbridge, Calgary and the Lower Mainland to access high-level programming and coaching to take the next step in moving on to junior or college programs.
The new partnership between the WHL club and the EK Ice Avalanche is aiming to change that.
“Hopefully this is the start of helping identify and develop younger players at the 10, 12, and 14-year-old ages and we’ll see how it grows over the coming years, but you do have to start,” said Patrick. “I think if you can have a program that might be a little more high-end where they’re on the ice more and start to get some really good coaching to help development, with those two things right there, I think you’re going to see improvement in the players and I think you’ll see more players being developed.”
Patrick spoke of his experience living in and observing non-traditional American hockey markets such as Dallas and Nashville, which are home to the Stars and Predators NHL franchises, respectively.
“I’ve seen what’s happened in American markets that weren’t hockey markets. You look at what happened in Dallas when the Stars went there,” said Patrick, who spent the last four years in Dallas as an NHL assistant coach. “There was one rink in a 100-mile radius and now there’s about 12 and there were 50 kids playing minor hockey, now there are thousands.
“…And I attribute that to here, that this is just the start of developing young kids who are eventually going to go on and play junior hockey or college hockey, and it’s giving them the opportunity to learn and grow and have opportunity in the future.”
Jason Russell is the head coach for the midget EK Ice Avalanche team. Matt Ford, the head coach of the bantam EK Ice Avalanche team, says the partnership with the WHL club will offer valuable coaching tools and help pass knowledge on to young players hoping to go on to higher levels.
“We’ve lost kids previously to go to Lethbridge, for instance,” said Ford, “so I’m really hoping this program will make kids stay home and that’s the goal, to keep kids home as long as possible and get them playing at a high level of hockey.”
The teams are already skating and have held a few practices and scrimmages to get ready for the upcoming season. Ford plans to attend Kootenay Ice practices to learn what he can from Patrick and the coaching staff, while Patrick and his staff will also attend EK Ice Avalanche practices and games to offer constructive feedback.
Klemm knows a little something about growing up as a young hockey player in Cranbrook, leaving when he was a teenager to pursue his hockey dreams, which turned into a lengthly pro career including a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996.
“Cranbrook has been blessed with some pretty good players to come out of this area and have some successful pro NHL careers,” Klemm said, “and to be able to have a program like that to develop young players to give them a chance to chase their dream of maybe someday playing pro hockey is outstanding.
“…I left home at an early age at 17 years old and early on, it was a challenge. It’s tough to leave your family and friends and the kids you went to school with. To be able to stay at home and play at a high level is a bonus for these guys.”