During 2015 Kootenay Ice training camp there was an abundance of 20-year-olds. In fact, a total of seven overagers battled for three slots before the group was eventually pared down.
Come 2016, the situation is much more clear as goaltender Payton Lee and forwards Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky are the only ones taking to the ice as elder statesmen.
Having quality overagers is key to success in the Western Hockey League, so if the Ice are to bounce back from a dismal 2015-16 campaign that saw them rack up a mere 12 wins, it will all start with the likes of Alfaro, Lee and Zborosky.
Not only does the trio already realize that, the hometown kid has some very valuable and relevant experience when it comes to turning things around.
“When I was 16 in Vancouver, we were at the bottom of the league. The next year we made playoffs,” Lee said following morning scrimmages at Western Financial Place on Tuesday. “Anything can happen.
“You’ve just got to come in every day and be a good example, come in and work hard, hope everybody can pick up on that and we can get a few wins under our belt early. Anything can happen.”
At the age of 16, the 6-foot-1, 191-pound Lee was in his rookie season (2012-13) with the Vancouver Giants. Like the 2015-16 edition of the Ice, that Giants squad finished last in the WHL with only 21 wins and 44 points.
Fast-forward one year to 2013-14 — Lee and the Giants bounced back to finish third in the B.C. Division with 32 wins and 75 points in order to return to the WHL post-season picture.
As far-fetched as it might be to think a last-place team can return to the playoffs only one year later, Lee has lived that exact scenario and the aim is to help this Ice squad do the same.
With his veteran presence between the pipes, the goal-scoring prowess of Zborosky and the hard-nosed tenacity of Alfaro, the Ice very well could bounce back in surprising fashion come puck drop on the 2016-17 campaign.
“We know last year didn’t go so well,” Alfaro said Tuesday. “We don’t want to do worse or the same, we want to improve. We’re going to be young again.
“Playing simple [is what it’s going to take]. Last year after losses, we got down on ourselves. At the end of the year, we kind of got better and we were more mature as a team and [had] more chemistry, so keeping that going [will be key].”
While Lee long served as the starting goaltender in Vancouver and brings reliability to the blue paint after an off-season trade from the Edmonton Oil Kings, both Alfaro and Zborosky had breakout years in 2015-16.
Alfaro grew into a leadership role, serving as an alternate captain and posted career highs in all major statistical categories, including goals (22), assists (26) and points (48).
With former captain Tanner Lishchynsky having graduated from the major junior ranks, there’s a large void to fill in the leadership department. Then factor in the loss of goaltender Wyatt Hoflin, who played a vital role as another experienced leader. There’s no doubt the success of the Ice will weigh heavily on the shoulders of Alfaro, Lee and Zborosky.
“Last year, Tanner took over some of those roles [as a vocal leader] when Luke [Philp] and [Jaedon] Descheneau and Marty [Jon Martin] left,” Alfaro said. “I want to do what he did. I learned from him to talk more in the room.”
Like Alfaro, Zborosky also took on a greater leadership stake in 2015-16. He backed that by setting the scoring pace for his club, tallying career highs in goals (32), assists (36) and points (68).
“For the most part, I think everyone can agree with me on the team that last year was a tough season,” Zborosky said Monday. “We obviously want to improve a lot from last season, make it a better environment, better to be around and have a good, winning season, hopefully.
“Considering we’re going to have another good, young group of guys, [I want] to mentor them, help them out a lot. First year in the league is always hard. Being a veteran, you’ve just got to help them out.”
The second day of Kootenay Ice training camp saw the veterans mixed in with the rookies for the first time and it was easy to see Alfaro and Zborosky setting the pace amongst the skaters.
The first on-ice session saw Zborosky flatten sophomore forward Max Patterson with a heavy check, while Alfaro provided his usual pesky presence, chasing down puck-carriers on the back check and driving the net with panache.
Between the pipes, Lee calmly kicked pucks aside and defended the cage as he has for 169 other WHL games.
“I haven’t really thought about [being the No. 1 guy] too much,” Lee said. “I’m just going to go out there and do my job every day, work hard and be a good example for the young guys. That’s all I can really do.”
It’s a mantra not only being preached by Lee, but also by Alfaro and Zborosky — Work hard, be a good example and do your job.
“It’s been a long summer,” Alfaro said. “So I’m excited to get back, start things and have a good new season.”
Kootenay Ice training camp wraps up Wednesday. Players will run through final scrimmages from 8 a.m. through 11:30 a.m. before closing out camp with the annual United Way Intrasquad Game at Western Financial Place (7 p.m.).
All proceeds from the 18th annual Black/White Intrasquad Game will be donated to United Way — East Kootenay. The event has raised more than $34,000 during its time.
A minimum donation of $5 gives fans access to the game.
Ice Chips: RW River Beattie (1997) is not in camp with the Ice as he has decided to pursue post-secondary education. The product of Sherwood Park, Alta., played 122 regular season games with the Ice from 2014 through 2016, collecting 13 goals and 22 points… Returning C Shane Allan (1997) has not been on the ice to this point in camp as he battles an undisclosed injury… 1999-born forward Evan Thomas was quietly effective for Team White in both scrimmages Tuesday morning, winning the bulk of his face-offs and making simple, smart plays with the puck… Another youngster, Austin Wong (2000), made his presence known, hitting everything in sight while showing a great level of compete. The 5-foot-9 younger brother of Lethbridge Hurricanes star Tyler Wong was an 11th round pick (232nd) of the Ice in 2015…