Back-to-back Teddy Bear Toss nights in two of the WHL’s biggest markets will test the Kamloops Blazers’ resolve as they begin a six-game tour of the Central Division.
The Edmonton Oil Kings (15-11-3-2) and Calgary Hitmen (12-14-2-1) are expecting about 18,000 fans on Friday and Saturday, respectively, for the annual stuffed-animal extravaganzas.
Younger Blazers will be playing in front of crowds like that for the first time. They seem ready for the challenge following Wednesday’s youth-movement inspired comeback 3-2 victory over Victoria at Sandman Centre.
Kyrell Sopotyk, 17, capped the brightest night of his young career by setting up 16-year-old Josh Pillar for the game-winning goal at 10:34 of the third period.
“It’s just nice to get a couple of points and a good win for the boys,” said Sopotyk, the Aberdeen, Sask., product who notched his third goal of the campaign in the first period.
“Three in a row now. That’s a good homestand.”
The Blazers’ 20-year-old captain Jermaine Loewen was set up by 18-year-old D-man Luke Zazula on the tying goal in the second period, with 17-year-old import forward Martin Lang providing the second assist.
After rattling of three straight goals to take the lead, 16-year-old goaltender Dylan Garand was called on to shut the door, with the Royals pressing for the equalizer on a lengthy 5-on-3 power play late in the third period.
“My thoughts weren’t too good, but it went well for us,” said Garand, who has started and won three consecutive games in the absence of injured No. 1 Dylan Ferguson.
“It’s big for my confidence. It’s unfortunate with him [Ferguson] going down, but it’s big for me. Our team is playing well. They deserve a lot of the credit.”
Ferguson is expected to return to action this weekend.
Kamloops went down 2-0 to Saskatoon on Friday and 1-0 to Seattle on Saturday, but recovered to win 3-2 in overtime and 6-3, respectively.
“That’s a habit we have to get out of,” Zazula said of giving up the game’s first goal.
Added Sopotyk: ‘But we’ve shown lots of character, lots of enthusiasm on the bench. The pushback is real big right now.”
The Vancouver Giants (20-6-2-0) have 42 points and are running away with the B.C. Division, while the rest of its teams hover around the .500 mark.
Kelowna (13-15-2-0, 28 points), Victoria (13-11, 26 points), Kamloops (12-11-1-1, 26 points) and Prince George (11-14-1-2, 25 points) round out the standings.
Kamloops’ third Teddy Bear Toss game of the road trip will be played on Dec. 14, when the Kootenay Ice play host in Cranbrook.
Blazers’ play-by-play man Jon Keen will have his hands full killing time while the goods are collected during extended breaks from action, although plans are in place for guests to share the burden.
The Hitmen are trying to regain their world record for most stuffed animals collected on Teddy Bear Toss night.
Calgary’s mark was broken on Sunday by the Hershey Bears, the Pennsylvania-based American Hockey League club that collected 34,798 furry creatures that will be distributed to local charities.
Cowtown’s WHL club had held the world record since Dec. 6, 2015, when 28,815 toys flew to the ice at Scotiabank Saddledome.
The Blazers would love to see them rain down after the final horn sounds on Sunday, a depressing moment for any home team on Teddy night as it indicates they were unable to light the lamp.
“It’s going to be a great experience for these guys,” said Blazers’ head coach Serge Lajoie, a Bonnyville, Alta., product.
“The feeling in the dressing room is really good right now.”