The most interesting matchup of tonight’s WHL game at the Sandman Centre may well be behind the benches.
On the ice, the game will feature the Kootenay Ice going against the host Kamloops Blazers.
At the benches, it will be Luke Pierce of the Ice, who at 32 is the youngest head coach in the WHL, against the iconic Don Hay of the Blazers, at 61 the WHL’s elder statesman among coaches. (Hay is four months older than John Paddock
of the Regina Pats.)
Not only that, but Pierce, in his first season, has six victories, the fewest of any of the WHL’s 22 head coaches. Hay has 648 victories, the second-highest total in league history.
“It’s weird . . . I’m not going to lie. It’s extremely exciting,” Pierce told Taylor Rocca of the Cranbrook Daily Townsman on Monday. “I grew up a big Blazers fan in the Jarome Iginla days, Darcy Tucker and all those guys, when they were winning Memorial Cups — that building was sold out every night.
“It’s cool to be there as a coach, and especially against a guy like Don Hay — it’s daunting, but it’s exciting.”
This will be a homecoming of sorts for Pierce, who is from Merritt and spent the previous six seasons in that community as the general manager and head coach of its BCHL franchise, the Centennials,
A 5-foot-8, 170-pound forward, he played two seasons with the Centennials and spent five seasons at the Royal Military College in Kingston.
He signed a three-year deal with the Ice on May 26, replacing veteran Ryan McGill, who now is head coach of the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack.
Pierce took over a team in transition, one moving from being an older veteran club to one that has nine freshmen on its roster. While he saw that coming, no one could have seen the devastation done to his roster by injuries.
Forwards Luke Philp and Jaedon Descheneau, who last season combined for 163 points, including 64 goals, both have long-term injuries, as does defenceman Tyler King. Forward River Beattie is day-to-day, forward Zak Zborosky is week-to-week, and forward Shane Allan will complete a four-game suspension tonight.
As a result, the Ice is 6-19-2 — 1-11-0 on the road — and last in the 12-team Eastern Conference, 11 points out of a playoff spot. It has lost its last three games as it begins a five-game B.C. Division trip.
The Blazers (11-9-3) are coming off a 7-3 loss to the Cougars in Prince George on Saturday. Kamloops had gone into that game with an 8-0-3 record in its previous 11 games. The Blazers are in possession of the Western Conference’s first wild-card spot, one point ahead of the Portland Winterhawks, who are in Prince George for a Tuesday/Wednesday doubleheader. The Winterhawks are to play in Kamloops on Friday.
At the same time, the Blazers are fourth in the B.C. Division, three points behind the Cougars.
JUST NOTES: F Jesse Zaharichuk, who was traded by the Blazers to the Ice on Sunday for a fifth-round pick in the 2018 bantam draft, should make his Kootenay debut tonight. He is expected to wear No. 11. . . . Kamloops D Dallas Valentine, who has missed five games with an undisclosed injury, may be ready to return tonight. . . . Pierce and the Ice are expected to have some support in the stands tonight. Rocca reports that a fan bus from Merritt is expected to make the journey to Kamloops.“It means the world,” Pierce said. “I’m extremely proud of being from Merritt. They’re extremely loyal to the people who have opportunities to move on and represent the community. To see the response from the community in that way, it’s humbling. Hopefully our guys are ready to give them a good show.”
The Ice roster also includes F Max Patterson, a Kamloopsian who won’t turn 16 until Dec. 27. The Ice selected him in the fourth round of the 2014 bantam draft. The son of former Blazers F Ed Patterson, who now is the head coach of the junior B Kamloops Storm, Max has two goals and an assist in 20 games. You know that he will have family and friends on hand, too. . . . The Blazers haven’t lost in regulation time at home since Oct. 23 when they were beaten 4-2 by the Calgary Hitmen. Kamloops is 6-0-2 at home since that loss. . . . The Blazers went 6-1-3 in November.