When Luke Pierce took on the task of guiding a rebuilding Kootenay Ice squad, he brought along a reputation that long preceded him from his days with the Merritt Centennials of the British Columbia Hockey League.
For six years in the B.C. Interior, the Merritt native found a way, season after season, to get every drop of talent and work ethic out of teams often labelled as short on skill and not expected to compete with the heavyweights of the Interior Division, like the Penticton Vees and Vernon Vipers.
Yet, for six straight seasons Pierce led his Centennials to the post-season.
With the Ice facing life without NHL-drafted junior stars Sam Reinhart, Tim Bozon, Rinat Valiev and a host of other well-established veterans, which eventually included the likes of the goal-scoring Jaedon Descheneau, heavy-hitting Tanner Faith, two-way beast Jon Martin and heart-and-soul Luke Philp, there’s absolutely no question the 2015-16 Kootenay Ice were going to be a bit shorter on elite ability than many had become accustomed to.
And so despite moving from a Junior A bench in the B.C. Interior to a Western Hockey League bench in the East Kootenay, the rookie shot-caller was faced with a very similar challenge — bring together a young, inexperienced group without a great deal of depth.
“What I want is to play a much better team game,” Pierce said from behind his desk, deep in the depths of Western Financial Place, days after having sent his charges home with marching orders for the off-season, leaving the usually echoing halls with nothing to hear but silence. “We all know there are going to be huge expectations on Matt [Alfaro] and Zak [Zborosky] to lead us offensively, especially, but we need more contributions in other areas of the game. We need more physicality, we need more sacrifice. We need better defensive hockey.
“You need guys to embrace different roles on your team and we need to emphasize those guys and cite their importance, night in and night out.”
At too many times over the course of the 2015-16 season, there weren’t enough contributions in other areas of the game. There wasn’t enough physicality, there wasn’t enough sacrifice and there were certainly serious lapses in the defensive zone.
So with a 12-53-6-1 campaign in the books and having seen a celebrated franchise miss the WHL playoff bracket for the first time since 1997-98, Pierce reflects on his rookie year as a WHL head coach.
“Unless you’ve been an assistant coach in this league for several years and experienced what it’s like, day in and day out, I don’t think you can ever be prepared for what it is,” Pierce said. “I took the job in June…and that doesn’t leave you a lot of time to prepare. Even if you take over in April, I don’t think you can fully prepare for what it is.”
And so with that in mind, Pierce took every opportunity he had to seek out advice from veteran Western League coaches over the course of the 2015-16 season.
The best — and perhaps simplest — slice of wisdom came from none other than the storied and established Kelly McCrimmon, head coach and general manager of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
“As far as dealing with players, the best piece of advice probably [came] from Kelly McCrimmon, who has been in it a long time, obviously,” Pierce said. “It was just how important the little things are with a team like ours, which he had. He went through nine-win type seasons and he talked about the little things — shift length, face-offs, shot blocks. There’s nothing new-age about it, but it’s just reminding yourself how important the basics are.”
From there, Pierce realized there was a significant disconnect between his coaching staff and their group of inexperienced soldiers.
When a sports team undergoes a change in coaching, it’s easy to focus in on how systems and game play might be impacted. Fans and pundits are quick to watch how player roles might shift or alter.
But what can so easily be forgotten is the weight of mass culture shock when a new coach brings a completely new approach to every aspect of the game. Whether on the ice in practice and games or off-ice in the dressing room and video sessions, a change in coaching staff calls for much greater adjustment than many realize.
Sometimes that’s a connection even a coach can’t dial in at first and there’s no question Pierce brought a drastically different approach from that of longtime taskmaster Ryan McGill, who mutually parted ways with the team at the expiration of his contract following the 2014-15 WHL season.
“I think early on in the year we didn’t do a good enough job of reinforcing just how we wanted to play,” Pierce said. “We gave guys, veteran guys, probably too much leeway playing in old habits. We have to all be on the same page on day one. They have to give themselves up to coaching.
“It’s hard to convey the message to the players, because they choose whether or not they want to believe in you. But it’s just them opening themselves up to being coached. Even if your plan is a bad plan, if they execute it properly, it will still have success. We tried to continue to always bring that message back to just follow the plan, follow the plan, follow the plan.”
As the season wore on the players became more open to coaching. Pierce will tell you that and every fan in every seat at Western Financial Place was witness to a group seemingly more dedicated to following the plan.
From a 2-0 full team-effort shutout of the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Feb. 6 to an electrifying 2-0 blanking of the Edmonton Oil Kings on March 15, there were visible strides made by a young group that didn’t tack up many wins, but did an admirable job when they triumphed.
Though the season ended in a 6-5 shootout defeat at the hands of the Calgary Hitmen on March 20, the Ice erased a 5-2 deficit in the third period to force overtime in a game that otherwise would have remained unquestioned should the team have chosen to pack it in.
What took place in those contests, just to pinpoint a few highlights, is a sample of the building blocks Pierce is hoping will provide a strong foundation to help get his squad off to a better start when his sophomore campaign rolls around this fall.
“There’s such little practice time over the course of the year that it’s really difficult to make major adjustments or even reinforce your basics,” Pierce said. “To me, having the skeleton outline of how we want to play already all in place when they get here prepared for them in video and packages on system structure [is critical].”
After having 10 first-year WHL players this season, Pierce will be faced with yet another young and relatively inexperienced crew in 2016-17, with Alfaro and Zborosky the only returning 20-year-olds.
In the face of what will continue to be an uphill battle as this franchise works through its first significant rebuild since landing in Cranbrook, Pierce’s players maintain they fully expect to be able to battle their way back into the playoff race in 2016-17.
Jeff Chynoweth, president and general manager of the Kootenay Ice, knew fully that even his young coaching staff was set to battle through a learning curve, much like his inexperienced squad did this season.
But he also knows that despite slugging through one of the most challenging years in franchise history, those involved will be all the better as a result of surviving the adversity.
“I’m looking forward — everyone is going to be a year older and a year smarter,” Chynoweth said. “Our coaches — now they aren’t rookies anymore. They know what the Western Hockey League is about. They know how good the coaches are. They know how good the players are. The travel, the preparation — everything was new for them as well.
“Next year, everyone knows what to expect… I expect improvements in all areas.”
Though the season is over and the players have gone home, Pierce and his players are left with plenty of time to digest the experience of the past campaign and process it in preparation for what comes next.
Ask anyone around the Kootenay Ice dressing room — what comes next season is the goal and expectation to fight for a playoff spot right down to the bitter end.
“Some things definitely exceeded what my expectation would have been, things like travel, how busy the schedule is and how exhausting that can be,” Pierce said. “Other things didn’t exceed my expectations. I maybe overestimated the mentality and maturity of our players. Really, that was a silly mistake on my part because they’re the same age and younger as the teams I’ve been working with for years past. But you just have this psychological belief that because they’re Western Hockey Leaguers, they’re going to have a different type of approach to the game.
“There was a lot of little things that we overlooked — game play, as far as how important your starts are, how important shifts after goals are, last minutes, discipline — those types of things that you really think should just be engrained in those guys and they’re not.
“That’s on us. That’s not their fault. They’re all young guys that come out of minor hockey learning the same stuff.
“Now that we know that stuff, I think we’ll be in a much better position next year to get started.”
So with greater knowledge at his disposal, committed dedication to the plan from his players and all-around growth in terms of experience, Pierce and the Kootenay Ice head into the off-season with only one thing in mind: return to the playoff race in 2016-17.
With a strong coaching track record in place, it isn’t a question of whether or not Pierce will strike success in the Western Hockey League, only a matter of when.