The chase for Chynoweth is on
The thirst around town for regular-season WHL hockey will be quenched this weekend when the Kamloops Blazers begin their quest for Ed Chynoweth's mug.
Many Blazer fans believe a Blue and Orange concoction might flow from the Western Hockey League's championship trophy in May, while some critics think Kamloops backers have let similar-hued Kool-Aid affect their judgement.
Blazer GM Craig Bonner made no bold predictions this week in an interview with KTW, but there was plenty of confidence emanating from the corner office at headquarters on Mark Recchi Way.
"I believe we're going into this season as strong as anybody in the conference," said Bonner, whose team bowed out of the playoffs in Game 7 of Round 2 last season, losing to the Portland Winterhawks.
"We're going to win a lot of games if we're playing the right way."
The first test comes at Interior Savings Centre on Friday, Sept. 21, when the Kelowna Rockets are in town.
Kamloops will raise the 2011-2012 B.C. Division banner — its first in 10 years — before the 7 p.m. faceoff.
The feeling among those close to the organization was much different at this time last year than it is now.
"Going into last season, on paper, I thought we had a good group but, coming off a year where you didn't make the playoffs, you're a little hesitant," said Bonner, now in his fifth year as the club's GM.
"We turned the corner, so this year is obviously a lot easier and less stressful going into the season."
Kamloops is returning a strong group of veterans — forwards Brendan Ranford, Colin Smith, Tim Bozon, Dylan Willick, JC Lipon and Jordan DePape, along with defencemen Tyler Hansen and Marek Hrbas and goaltender Cole Cheveldave, to name a few — and might get a huge boost if Columbus Blue Jackets' defenceman Austin Madaisky is returned to the club.
"Going into the year, I realistically thought we had a 50-50 chance of getting him back and, the way things look right now with the [NHL] lockout, it might be swaying in our favour a little bit more," Bonner said.
"He could be that one piece that puts us over the top."
Bonner guessed early November might be the earliest Madaisky could suit up for Kamloops, after the Jackets' American Hockey League affiliate team, the Springfield Falcons of Massachusetts, gets a look at the blue-liner in exhibition and perhaps regular-season AHL play.
If Madaisky comes back, Bonner has two weeks from when he arrives to decide which one of the four over-age players — Madaisky, DePape, Willick or Ranford — will be leaving.
Bonner, named last season's Western Conference executive of the year, was with the Vancouver Giants during the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, so he has an idea what to expect this time around.
"Selfishly, it will help our attendance and exposure because there's no NHL to watch," he said. "And, there will be some players in our league that weren't anticipated to be here."
Shaw Cable is set to broadcast 32 regular-season WHL games, along with a host of playoff games, in Western Canada, but it might not be the only network on board if the lockout continues.
"There is a CHL [Canadian Hockey League] agreement with Sportsnet already," Bonner said. "I wouldn't be surprised if you saw Sportsnet ramp up their coverage of the league."
The Blazer brass is expecting big things this season from a few of its less-experienced players — Matt Needham, Aspen Sterzer and Cole Ully up front and Tyler Bell and Landon Cross on the back end.
"Sometimes, those are the guys that can make the difference to your team when they exceed expectations," Bonner said.
"For example, JC Lipon was one of those guys for us last year."
The Regina product racked up 65 points, 19 of them goals, playing right-wing on a line with Smith, a centre, and left-winger Bozon, who was named the Western Conference's rookie of the year.
That unit combined for 221 points, including 90 goals, so don't expect the trio to split up any time soon.
Bozon was selected by the Montreal Canadiens in Round 3 and Smith by the Colorado Avalanche in Round 7 at the NHL Entry Draft in June.
It's tough to consider Smith, Bozon and Lipon a second line, but that's the case, with the 20s — Willick playing centre between Ranford and DePape — expected to hop over the boards first.
The biggest question heading into last season was between the pipes.
Cole Cheveldave nailed down the job early and quickly established himself as the undisputed No. 1 guy in front of Cam Lanigan, now a Winterhawk.
The Calgary product was named to the Western Conference's second all-star team, finishing 34-11-5, with a 2.62 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage.
Taran Kozun is second on the Blazers' depth chart.
After missing the playoffs in the 2010-2011 campaign, Kamloops might have caught a few teams off guard last season, but Bonner knows those days are long gone.
"This year, teams are going to be gunning for us," he said.
"The most dangerous thing for us is getting complacent and being satisfied. Looking at our group, I don't think we're like that.
"They got a taste of going to the playoffs and having some success.
"The players are hungry."
So is the club's fan base — and parched, longing to sip from championship hardware.