As the players from the Kamloops Blazers disperse following the end of another WHL season, they should be leaving with their heads held high.
After all, they have made this city’s WHL franchise relevant again.
For the last two seasons, Kamloops has not been the place WHL teams come to for a little R&R. No longer do they come here to see a movie, walk around Aberdeen Mall, leave a little sweat at Interior Savings Centre and leave with the two points.
The Blazers reached the WHL’s championship final in 1999, when they won the first game and then lost four straight to the Calgary Hitmen.
Who knew then that the glory days were over? Who knew then of what was to follow?
For 12 consecutive seasons, the Blazers either were eliminated in the first round (10 times) or didn’t qualify for the playoffs. Seven times the Blazers were swept from the first round. Of the 45 playoffs games in which they took park during that stretch, they won only five.
Having to play the Blazers in the playoffs was like Christmas morning all over again. The last few weeks of recent WHL seasons were like the Kentucky Derby as teams jockeyed for position in hopes of playing the Blazers in late March.
Hockey in April in these parts? That was a distant memory.
Over the last two springs, the Blazers have played 26 postseason games, winning 16 of them.
The Blazers finished atop the B.C. Division in 2011-12, the first time that had happened since 2001-02, before their season ended in a gloriously exciting seven-game second-round series with the Portland Winterhawks.
This season, the Blazers set a franchise record with 14 straight victories, including five in a row in a mid-October ransacking of the Central Division. There was a time this season when the Blazers were No. 1 in the CHL rankings. (I grant you that those rankings often have more holes in them than the nets at ISC, but they do provide some insight into who’s good and who isn’t.)
When the Blazers played their game this season — when they skated hard, forechecked hard, and made life miserable for opposing defencemen behind their icing line — they were a good team. When they played with controlled aggression, they were very good.
It was when they tried to be bruising and intimidating, when they tried to play between the whistle and the drop of the puck, rather than between the whistles, that they found themselves in trouble.
In the end, the Blazers were eliminated by the Winterhawks on Friday night, losing the best-of-seven Western Conference final in five games. There is no shame in losing in the WHL’s Final Four. And there certainly is no shame in losing to the Winterhawks, a team that has raised the performance bar and will be tough to beat in the championship final for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
But where do the Blazers go from here?
As is always the case in junior hockey, there will be roster changes.
The three 20-year-olds — captain Dylan Willick, five-year veteran Brendan Ranford and winger Kale Kessy — have used up their eligibility.
Of the 20 players who dressed Friday, eight were 1993-born, with four of those being defencemen. With teams allowed to carry only three 20-year-olds, a maximum of three of them could return next season.
Colin Smith and JC Lipon, the two most consistent forwards, are 1993-born and eligible to turn pro. Smith’s NHL rights are held by the Colorado Avalanche, although he has yet to sign a contract, while Lipon almost certainly will be selected in the NHL draft in June.
That would leave Tim Bozon as the top returning forward, at least in terms of points, but he would need to find new linemates. Cole Ully and Matt Needham move up the depth chart, perhaps to the very top.
On the back end, there obviously is work to be done. Joel Edmundson and Marek Hrbas won’t be back, the former to the St. Louis Blues organization, the latter to a pro team in his native Czech Republic. Tyler Hansen, his faith of utmost importance to him, amost certainly will go on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and not return for his 20-year-old season.
In terms of preparation for the future, the Blazers’ braintrust first will get through Thursday’s bantam draft.
And then there is the matter of the general manager, the head coach and the associate coach — Craig Bonner, Guy Charron and Dave Hunchak. Their contracts will expire before another season gets here.
There were rumours last summer that Bonner, now through five seasons as the GM here, might end up with the Dallas Stars, the NHL team owned by Blazers majority owner Tom Gaglardi. Those rumours are bound to surface again.
But who knows what’s going on with Charron and Hunchak, who have proven to be a successful tandem? In the world of hockey, it is most unusual for a team to have the kind of season the Blazers just had without the coaches receiving contract extensions at some point.
These days, Gaglardi is rather busy with his NHL team, as he sweeps parts of the hockey operation clean following a non-playoff campaign. General manager Joe Nieuwendyk left on Sunday, with a replacement, Detroit Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill, to be introduced today. There will be changes on the coaching staff, too.
“In Dallas, a town where hockey has always had to struggle for attention, the Stars have finally collapsed into irrelevance,” Allan Muir of SI.com wrote yesterday. “Gaglardi knew he couldn’t sell the same weak tea next season.”
That’s one thing Gaglardi doesn’t have to worry about in Kamloops, thanks to players like Smith, Lipon, Ranford and Willick, all of whom drank the weak tea and helped make it stronger.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at email@example.com, gdrinnan.blogspot.ca and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)
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