Members of the Kootenay Ice Fan Club take in the team's final game of the 2016-17 season at the Saddledome in Calgary.

Members of the Kootenay Ice Fan Club take in the team's final game of the 2016-17 season at the Saddledome in Calgary.

Unwavering support: On the road with the Kootenay Ice Fan Club

The Ice’s biggest fans made the trip to Calgary for the final game of the 2016-17 season sharing their thoughts and memories along the way.

There was no question they’d be going.

A nine-game losing streak, a guarantee of last place in the WHL, even rumours of the team’s relocation weren’t going to stop the Kootenay Ice Fan Club from being at the Saddledome for the last game of the year.

“The boys need our support,” President Carolin Hockley repeated as a mantra in the weeks leading up to the game. “The boys need our support.”

While it’s been a tough couple of seasons for the Ice, the club has never wavered one iota in their commitment to the team.

And so, on Saturday afternoon, a group of 30 fans packed into a bus and made the trip to Calgary for the team’s last game of the season.

For a core group of the fan club, it’s a drill they have down pat.

They take their seats, settle in and get straight to hockey talk. Whether they’re reminiscing about the Ice’s glory years, debating the team’s future, or just laughing about some of the past’s lighter moments, the bus is filled with passion and energy.

A hot topic of conversation on this particular trip? The club’s recent Roast Beef and Pasta Dinner. According to Hockley, the annual event was a huge success, giving 153 community members a rare chance to sit down and talk with the players they support so dearly.

Each member of the club who was in attendance had their own unique story from the dinner.

One person recounted how funny Fedor Rudakov and Nikita Radzivilyuk are off the ice, while another found out how much Payton Lee loves to cook, and apparently, even though Jakob Walter seems shy at first, once you get him going he’ll talk your ear off.

Just after crossing the Crowsnest pass, it’s time for a history lesson. Every fan has a special memory from the past 19 years, but few have such vivid recollections as Jim LeClair.

As the rest of the bus clears off for a quick snack at Tim Hortons, Jim recounts the story of his first Ice game — the moment he knew he was getting involved in something special.

“I remember the [very] first exhibition game at the Memorial Arena,” LeClair said. “My brother and I sat up high in the first row. There was a lady [with] her son and daughter, and I leaned over to the little girl and asked her if she was excited about the hockey team and she said, ‘Yes, one of the players is my brother.”

As LeClair soon found out, he was sitting behind the family of future NHLer, Steve McCarthy.

“Mrs. McCarthy leaned over and said to me, in a very stone-faced way, to ‘enjoy it while you can because you’ll never keep the team here,’ […] ‘the people of Cranbrook will never have the wherewithal to vote for a new arena’.”

Although LeClair eventually realized that the comments were mostly stemming from a Trail — where the McCarthy family was from — and Cranbrook rivalry, it set him up with a mission.

He had to support the team, and so did the community.

2000 was the year the Fan Club was officially incorporated as a non-profit organization and also the first year that the Ice made it to the Memorial Cup.

From that point on LeClair’s been one of the team’s most dedicated supporters. In 19 years, he’s only missed a handful of games and has been around for some of the Ice’s crowning moments

“[In the early years] there was a real energy [and] a love affair with [the team],” LeClair said, “My wife and I have been to every Memorial Cup since 2000.”

In 2002, the fans became the talk of the town.

“We were the height of the whole tournament, [and] everybody commented, ‘Oh those Kootenay Ice fans. I mean they yell and scream.’ We outdid everybody,” LeClair said. “We had the Erie Otters fans next to us and they were in awe of how we yelled and screamed.

“We went home at night and couldn’t talk. We had no voices.”

The Ice ended up winning the Memorial Cup in Guelph, and for the first time, the fan club realized how much they meant to the players.

“The team never really showed too much emotion and never really acknowledged that we were there,” LeClair recalled. “[But the media told us that] when they went in and talked to the Kootenay Ice, all they could talk about were the fans and all of the outstanding support.

“[And] after they won the Memorial Cup, they came over to the corner where we were and it was hair-raising. There aren’t words for it.”

It was then that LeClair and his fellow Fan Club members went from being observers to an integral part of the organization.

“The people that stayed were invited to be with the team [after they won],” he said. “My wife and I went over to celebrate with them. We drank beer out of the Memorial Cup and the players sat down with us and we were just treated like part of the team.”

While that moment may have been the highlight of the Fan Club’s existence, LeClair doesn’t look back with envy but instead believes that reaching that high is a good lesson for dealing with the recent tougher times.

“[At that Memorial Cup] everyone was in awe of how we yelled and screamed, [and the] hardcore fans are still like that,” he said. “Maybe all that noise isn’t there all the time, but that’s the way we feel. I love everyone of them. The people that are there and supporting the team now, are the best in the league. When teams struggle, that’s when they need us the most.”

As the Calgary skyline appears on the horizon, the fan club members begin to make their outward transformations into the super fans they are.

The jerseys come out, the noisemakers are revealed, and they’re ready to take the Saddledome by storm.

LeClair explained what this rivalry means.

“Calgary is our biggest rival and it always has been. It doesn’t matter the stature of the teams, whether one is better than the other, they are generally outstanding games,” he said. “It’s a special thing. The players always get up to play each other.”

And the fans always get up to cheer against one another.

Even in a game with no implications for the standings, 11,410 Hitmen fans ferociously chant ‘Kootenay sucks’, a curious tradition that began at the 2000 Memorial Cup in Halifax and continues at every Calgary home game, even when they’re not playing the Ice. In response, the travelling Ice fans cheer their hearts out for every shot their team gets on goal and every Payton Lee save.

Hockley loves the experience of being an Ice fan in another city.

“I am proud to wear my Kootenay Ice jersey in other arenas,” she said. “It’s a great feeling when fans in other cities thank you for attending and supporting the team.”

Although the fan club contingency might not attract the attention they once did, they’re no doubt still excited by their team.

When Vince Loschiavo scored a second period goal — the Ice’s only marker of the night — their little section in the corner erupted as if it were 2002 again. They weren’t right up against the glass, and they wouldn’t join the players for a drink out of a trophy later, but their support is just as passionate as ever.

And while the Ice left the game with a 4-1 loss, the fan club ended up with a victory of their own.

Four members won the building’s 50-50, a $7,570 prize. Out of everyone in the building, it was a few passionate Ice fans, who travelled five hours following the team, who got the payday.

Lucky, perhaps. Or maybe it was the hockey gods, smiling down on them.

The Kootenay Ice Fan Club has had a rough time these past two years, but it appears that nothing will hold them down.

“There are a lot of troubling things going on, [but] hopefully if they come back to the grassroots of the game, maybe they can get some good ideas that will contribute to making it better,” LeClair said on the ride to the rink. “My wife and I love the game and we love the players. Kootenay Ice is number one for us, all the way. We are looking forward to next season and all the players that are going to come out. For the ups and downs of it, we’re there with them all the way.”

And while they don’t get to express it as often as they would like, the players appreciate them more than they can even imagine.

“It’s awesome that they are still showing their support for us [in that way],” Ice captain Cale Fleury said of the fans who made their way to Calgary. “I know the team is happy to be in Cranbrook and Cranbrook is happy to have the team, so it’s good that we can have a relationship with them.”

While a few members of the Fan Club left with smiles on their faces because of their sudden extra wealth, they all left with a glint of optimism in their eyes.

As rough as this season has been at times, the fans couldn’t stop talking about the future. The Taphorn brothers, Peyton Krebs, Brett Davis, even the strides shown by players like Max Patterson and Jakob Walter all have them chomping at the bit for next year.

There is a common refrain throughout the fan club that the young players make these times a little easier, but win or lose next year they’ll be back and just as passionate as ever.

“Even though [some people] think we have a failing product, lots of people are envious of us [too],” LeClair said. “We’ve got that jump … we’re young, younger than we’ve ever been. If they start believing in themselves, they will have more success than failure.”

The people in the fan club aren’t general managers, they can’t decide what players stay or go. They’re not coaches, they can’t tell the players what to do. They’re not able to be on the ice and score goals for themselves.

All they can do is watch and be supportive. It’s not always easy, but their impact means the world to the Kootenay Ice.