Ice forward Zak Zborosky (right) works past Hitmen defenceman Micheal Zipp (#4) during pre-season action in Crowsnest Pass

Ice forward Zak Zborosky (right) works past Hitmen defenceman Micheal Zipp (#4) during pre-season action in Crowsnest Pass

Ice host Hitmen as WHL’s 50th season begins

Kootenay Ice might be underdogs, but they're set to prove people wrong once again

Every year people throw shade at the Kootenay Ice.

Whether its questioning the future of the team in Cranbrook, or doubting the club’s ability to maintain its impressive run of 17 straight post-season appearances, prognosticators and pundits seem to enter every fall doubting the Kootenay Ice.

And this fall, as the Western Hockey League celebrates its 50th season, that hasn’t changed.

The Hockey News predicts the Ice to finish 22nd in the 22-team WHL.

“The Pipeline Show” — a popular junior hockey program on TSN Radio in Edmonton — said, “maybe they’ve got a puncher’s chance,” and, “they’re up against it this year.”

It’s not the first time Luke Philp has heard things like that said about his club.

“We still expect to win every night here,” said Philp, who led the team in scoring with 82 points last season. “We’re going to have that same mindset going into [Friday].

“When you lose guys like we’ve lost and it’s going to be a younger team, things like that might be said. But we can’t use that as an excuse just because people are saying it might be a tough year. We’ve got to be ready to play.”

More often than not, the Ice do just that — they come ready to play.

While the doubters voice their opinions every fall, two vastly more important consistencies also remain — the Kootenay Ice have qualified for the WHL playoffs in 17 consecutive seasons, powered by 16 straight campaigns with regular season records of .500 or better.

It makes one wonder why people continue to doubt.

“People saying you can’t do something, you want to do it,” said Zak Zborosky, the third-year forward who registered 28 goals and 40 points last season. “Yeah, we’re younger, but we can work hard. Luke [Pierce] is a good coach. We just have to stick to the game plan. We’re not always going to have Sam Reinhart to score that goal for us, but if we do it as a team and work hard, we should be fine.”

Sure, there’s no Reinhart. There’s no Tim Bozon and there’s no Rinat Valiev.

But workhorse goaltender Wyatt Hoflin — who created his own party-pack full of new franchise records last season — is still guarding the crease.

“Anytime you get doubt in your game, it pushes you that much harder to prove people wrong,” said Hoflin, who went 36-26-0-3 with three shutouts last season. “We still have lots of confidence in this team. We have a good foundation to our group and the organization. I think that’s why we’ve had so much success. We’re just going to build off that this year. We’re going to be a hard-working team and we’re going to get it done on a night-in, night-out basis.”

For Pierce, entering his first season as a head coach in the Western Hockey League, the tune of the underdog is familiar to his ears.

In the small BCHL market of Merritt, Pierce found a way, season after season, to get a Centennials club into the playoffs — six times, in fact — despite every expert everywhere else preaching otherwise.

“I’ve been a part of a team in the last six years, that every year, no matter how much we prove, people still thought the luck was going to run out eventually,” Pierce said. “There’s a reason why we play the games and you go through the season.

“We have an expectation of ourself and where we want to be. That’s all we’re going to focus on. We’re not going to worry about what other people think or do.

“If we start thinking about what everybody else is saying, it starts to creep in and become a belief. We don’t want to believe what other people say. We want to believe what we say.”

Pierce and his young Ice squad will be given a stiff test on opening night of the 2015-16 WHL season as the reigning Central Division-champion Calgary Hitmen visit Western Financial Place, before playing host to the Ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary Saturday.

For Pierce, the 32-year-old native of Merritt, the chance to face a veteran, well-coached Hitmen squad in back-to-back outings on opening weekend is just what his club needs to start the season.

“It will be a very good barometer for us early in the season and a real good test,” Pierce said. “It’s nice to play them back-to-back so we can see the types of adjustments and improvements we can make going into Saturday and how well our guys are picking up on that kind of stuff.”

This weekend might only knock two games off the itinerary for the Kootenay Ice, but it could a long way to proving doubters wrong once again.

Festivities between the Ice and Hitmen get underway Friday (7 p.m.) at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook.

The two teams hit the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary for the rematch Saturday (7 p.m.).

Notes: Unavailable to the Ice are D Tyler King (knee, indefinite) and D Tanner Lishchynsky (lower body, one week). The only banged up body in Hitmen camp is D Matt Dorsey (lower body, indefinite)… New this season! Stick around Western Financial Place on Friday night for the Three Stars of the Game as selected by the Daily Townsman!