Head coach Luke Pierce works with his Kootenay Ice charges earlier this season.

Head coach Luke Pierce works with his Kootenay Ice charges earlier this season.

Sunny SoCal proves productive for Kootenay Ice coach Luke Pierce

Kootenay Ice coach Luke Pierce soaked up plenty of sunshine & much more as a member of the WHL staff for at annual U.S. Combine Camp

For Luke Pierce, the youngest head coach in the Western Hockey League, a trip to sunny southern California was much more than a simple vacation.

The 32-year-old bench boss of the Kootenay Ice soaked up the rays in Anaheim as a member of the coaching staff for the WHL’s 11th U.S. Combine Camp, which ran from April 15 to 17.

“It was a fantastic experience just to be down there with such a great group of guys,” Pierce said Wednesday afternoon after having returned to Cranbrook. “Whether it’s the coaches or the training staff, the league staff, everybody — it was fun to spend some time away from the game even though we were still there working hockey.”

Pierce made the trek down to Orange County alongside Brent Kisio, head coach of the Lethbridge Hurricanes; Mike Williamson, head coach of the Tri-City Americans; and Bob Woods, head coach and general manager of the Saskatoon Blades.

The opportunity to rub shoulders with some experienced coaches was a welcome opportunity for the Merritt native as he works through his first WHL off-season after his Kootenay Ice missed the post-season for the first time since 1997-98.

“I think a lot of learning goes on at every level, sitting casually after dinner just chatting and sharing stories, talking about different things you’ve done or seen, as opposed to the formal setting of conferences or clinics,” Pierce said. “I’ve always enjoyed that setting and I feel like you pick up a lot more. You share different thoughts, talk about different teams and what they do. It’s unique, but it’s no different than anybody in any profession — when you sit around with other colleagues that work in the same profession but maybe for a different company, you can’t replicate that when it comes to mind-melding.

“The biggest thing for me is listening to them talk about different stuff. We’re all very similar. There’s nobody that’s created a brand-new way. It’s not like we’re missing the mark by doing things completely backwards. We’re all doing a lot of things very, very similar with our own unique qualities or styles. It helps reaffirm that we’re not missing the page here. We’re on track, we just need to continue to preach the buy-in.”

While those come as encouraging words for Kootenay Ice fans, there was much more to the trip for Pierce, as it also provided an excellent opportunity to work alongside and assess some of the best and brightest 15-year-old American prospects ahead of the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.

Pierce and the crew of WHL coaches ran practices and games for individual teams, featuring more than 80 of the top prospects from the western United States, including Alaska.

The Ice, of course, hold the first-overall selection at this year’s annual restocking, which is fast approaching. According to director of scouting Garnet Kazuik, expect to call as many as 10 names over the proceedings Thursday, May 5 in Calgary. So while the first-overall pick is of great focus, the opportunity to make good on the draft continues all the way down to the final selection.

“There were some very, very talented kids from the Dallas group,” Pierce said. “There was a pretty wide variety [of players]. It’s neat to see a little different approach from some of them in the game. But for the most part, I think they’re obviously extremely competitive and, no question, there are some kids that are going to be drafted and some probably drafted quite high. It was a good opportunity for us to get some eyes on some guys.”

According to Western Elite Hockey Prospects, forward Luke Toporowski (Chicago) is considered one of the top-ranked American-born prospects heading into the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.

The number of American players selected at the WHL Bantam Draft has been notable in recent years.

At the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft, a total of 30 players were selected from the U.S., including Nolan Foote — son of former NHL defenceman Adam Foote — who was made the top American selection when the Kelowna Rockets tabbed him in the second round (43rd overall).

For comparison’s sake, the largest provider of talent was Alberta with 72 players called while B.C. had 60 players claimed by WHL squads. Manitoba (36) and Saskatchewan (33) fell just ahead of the western United States.

In 2014, a total of 38 players were selected from south of the border, including Mark Kastelic, who was the top U.S.-born pick when the Calgary Hitmen chose him in the second round (41st overall). Kastelic just completed his WHL rookie campaign, registering five goals and 10 points in 59 games with the Hitmen.

The 2013 WHL Bantam Draft saw 30 American-born players selected, including Patrick Khodorenko, who the Everett Silvertips selected in the second round (26th overall).

While Pierce wasn’t ready to reveal any scouting reports ahead of the bantam draft, he said a key in rebuilding any roster can also come in the form of listing under-the-radar type players that perhaps go undrafted in May.

“There are no secrets anymore,” Pierce said. “People are probably all on line with who the top handful of guys were. To me, the ones I’m really interested in and sharing and talking with [general manager] Jeff [Chynoweth] is maybe some of the kids who don’t get drafted that we can hopefully look into potentially enticing into coming to a camp and going that route.”

Still, the primary focus remains on the upcoming 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. With assistant coach Gordon Burnett in attendance as part of the staff for the B.C. Cup, slated for April 21 to 25 in Salmon Arm, the Kootenay Ice have eyes in close on the province’s top bantam-aged players. Chynoweth is also expected to travel to the B.C. Interior to scout the weekend proceedings.

Meanwhile, Pierce will hold down the fort in Cranbrook before travelling to Canmore, Alta., to scout the Alberta Cup from April 28 to May 1. Like the B.C. Cup, the Alberta Cup brings together 160 of the top bantam-aged players in the province for a jamboree-style tournament, making for an effective scouting ground for all WHL clubs.

“At this time, with where we’re at in this organization,” Pierce said, “I don’t think you can leave any stone unturned, as far as potential kids, whether they’re drafted or not drafted.

“With where we’re at, I don’t think you can write off any options.”