Luke Philp stood on the concourse of Western Financial Place and looked longingly at the Kootenay Ice logo for one last time this season, its colours still emblazoned at centre ice.
“When you lose the last game, it never feels too great,” Philp said Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s really tough. You make lifetime friends here. It’s going to be a completely different-looking team next year.”
Philp, a 19-year-old native of Canmore, Alta., led the Ice in playoff scoring with five goals and 12 points in a seven-game setback at the hands of the Calgary Hitmen during the WHL’s Eastern Conference Quarter-finals. His performance earned him the Boston Pizza Top Playoff Performer award, which he was presented with Wednesday afternoon.
The presentation of the award was the final formal event prior to players heading their respective ways for the spring and summer — some to their professional clubs, others to visit friends and family before eventually trekking home — after Kootenay’s season and first-round playoff series came to a close in a 6-2 Game 7 loss in Calgary Monday night.
Though the season came to an earlier end than players, coaches and management wished for, plenty of positive memories and experiences remain.
“The way our team gave us a chance, being down 3-1 and we made it to a single-game knockout, it shows a lot of character,” said alternate captain Jaedon Descheneau Wednesday morning following his team exit interview. “It shows the guys didn’t give up.
“When that final buzzer went and I realized Levi Cable won’t play a game and Vetts [Austin Vetterl] won’t play a game in this league again — I’ve played with them since the day I got in this league when I was 16 — it was a little emotional. It brought a tear to my eye.”
After going 37-31-1-3 through the regular season, the Ice matched up against the Central Division-champion Calgary Hitmen in the first round of the WHL post-season, falling behind 3-1 in the series before storming back to force a deciding Game 7.
Just as the team’s Eastern Conference quarter-final featured a roller-coaster of ups and downs, the 2014-15 WHL regular season ran a similar course for the Kootenay Ice.
The team opened the campaign 3-13-0-0, dwelling in the WHL cellar before Tim Bozon and Sam Reinhart returned from pro camps to help spark a surge.
From Nov. 1 through the WHL trade deadline Jan. 10, the Ice went 18-5-0-1 to climb back into the WHL playoff picture, before levelling off and settling into the Eastern Conference first wild-card spot and a playoff date with the Hitmen.
“You can take positives in that we turned it around and we made the playoffs,” Philp said. “But [it’s] disappointing in the end.”
Both Philp and Descheneau knew that last game was going to be the last game they played with this particular group.
With three 1994-born players leaving Cranbrook for the final time in their major-junior hockey careers, Wednesday was an emotional day.
Tim Bozon, already departed, will join the Hamilton Bulldogs — the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens — extending his season as he hopes to help the Bulldogs extend theirs.
The Canadiens re-assigned Bozon to the Bulldogs Wednesday morning and the native of Valbonne, France, was already on a jet for Eastern Canada.
Levi Cable, who spent his entire WHL career in Cranbrook, left the rink for the final time, indicating he hopes to pursue a university education and CIS hockey.
“My four years, in total, were a blast,” Cable said. “I’m going to miss it here. I’m going to miss this last year. When I look back on it, I’m going to have good memories of all the guys here and the city of Cranbrook.
“I’ll miss the group of guys that I’ve played with every year. I’ll miss them the most, for sure. Coming to the rink, seeing them every day, you end up seeing them quite a bit over the eight-month time. They become a family and that’s what I’m going to miss the most.”
The native of Hudson Bay, Sask., finished up his 20-year-old campaign with career numbers, raking in 28 goals and 51 points.
Austin Vetterl, the quick-talking native of Surrey, heads home with his WHL career wrapped up as well. Like Cable, the pesky forward hopes to pursue CIS hockey.
“When you look back on it, you think about how much fun you had and how far you’ve actually came as a person, not just a player,” Vetterl said. “This league does grow you in many ways. You meet many new people. I think, looking back, you just have to remember everything you’ve been a part of.
“Leaving all the guys, no matter if you played with them for a year, three days, three years, you’re always going to have fun with them. That’s going to be the worst part about leaving this league.”
Vetterl also closed out his WHL tenure by posting career bests with 13 goals and 39 points over the full 72-game slate this past season.
As Vetterl and Cable look towards summer and determining where their college-hockey paths may take them, a handful of teammates continue their seasons with pro clubs.
Bozon wasn’t the only pro-bound player, as both Sam Reinhart and Rinat Valiev were summoned by their pro squads.
Reinhart was already on a flight out of Cranbrook as he was re-assigned to the AHL’s Rochester Americans Wednesday afternoon.
Valiev was also jet-setting east as he was re-assigned to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
For Valiev and Reinhart, they very well could turn pro on a full-time basis come the 2015-16 season.
On top of the departure of the three 1994-born veterans, the Ice stand to lose a number of eligible returners due to the WHL over-ager rule.
With 11 players born in 1995 and only three 20-year-old roster slots available for the 2015-16 WHL season, there will undoubtedly be plenty of change in Cranbrook before the Ice get back to it next season.
Forwards Ryan Chynoweth, Jon Martin, Philp, Descheneau, and Reinhart, join defencemen Tanner Lishchynsky, Tyler King, Valiev, Tanner Faith and Lenny Hackman, along with goaltender Wyatt Hoflin as 20-year-olds this fall. Only three of them will be able return to Cranbrook.
The 2014-15 season saw the Kootenay Ice extend a streak of 17 consecutive post-season appearances along with 16 straight seasons finishing with a record of .500 or better.
With the impending turnover, the 2015-16 season will certainly challenge both those runs.
If the likes of Descheneau, Philp and Valiev don’t turn pro, they will certainly be strong candidates to return in an effort to extend those eye-popping streaks.
“This is the place I’ve been for four years,” Descheneau said. “So this is the place I want it to end.”
The next big item on the calendar for the Kootenay Ice comes in restocking the cupboards at the WHL Bantam Draft, which takes place May 7 in Calgary.