Blustering brass are teasing tempest squall, a violent forecast for Kootenay International Junior Hockey League opposition.
The Kamloops Storm, a light breeze to Category 5 junior B competition in recent years, are back on the radar, according to general manager Matt Kolle and head coach Steve Gainey.
“In our minds, this is one of the strongest teams the Storm have iced in years,” said Kolle, who took the reins prior to the 2019-2020 campaign, when Tracy Mero bought 100 per cent ownership of the club, effectively ending the Barry Dewar era.
“We feel like we have three No. 1 lines right now. That’s how much depth we have on the team.”
Added second-year bench boss Gainey: “We do have a strong team. It’s the best team I’ve been around with the Storm.”
The Storm will begin phase 1 of the COVID-19 ravaged regular season in a three-team cohort, along with the Chase Heat and North Okanagan Knights. Three KIJHL teams opted out of the season, leaving 17 squads to play 30 games apiece amid the pandemic. Beaver Valley and 100 Mile House have taken the season off for financial reasons, while Spokane is sidelined because the Canada/U.S. border remains closed.
Kamloops will open the campaign at its new home, McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre, on Friday, Nov. 13, when the Heat are in town for the first of six phase 1 tilts against the Storm. The Knights and Storm will play seven times in phase 1, which ends on Dec. 18.
No fans will be permitted to watch Storm games, a downer for a club that feels it is on the rise.
Atop the list of reasons for team confidence is an extended pre-season, about 65 ice times that allowed the 25-man roster to gell and develop while playing with and against junior A and major junior peers.
Kolle organized the ice times, which featured players such as Kamloops Blazers’ standout Logan Stankoven, Everett Silvertips’ forward Ty Kolle, Reid Perepeluk of the Brandon Wheat Kings’, Medicine Hat Tigers’ overager Ryan Chyzowski and Florida Panthers’ signee Johnny Ludvig, among others.
“It created a really good environment for our team to get started in comparison to some other teams,” Gainey said. “We’re optimistic we’re ahead of other teams in some areas of our game.”
Kolle’s blueprint for the Storm’s return to junior B relevance is built partly around the inclusion of local players.
The roster (see complete list below) this season is telling, with 16 of 25 players from the Tournament Capital. Prince George, Whitecourt, Alta., Valemount, Victoria, Quesnel, Brandon and Lillooet are also represented.
Branden Toye is among the Kamloopsians, a 17-year-old graduate of the major midget Thompson Blazers who has eyes on progressing to the junior A ranks. He jumped into action this pre-season against players three and four years his senior, at first hesitant and finding the transition challenging.
“But after practices and playing instrasquad games, and those guys have played in the WHL and some junior A, I found I fit in more and felt more confident with the puck,” said Toye, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound forward.
The rookie group will also include Yale Hockey Academy graduate Owen Barrow, Pursuit of Excellence graduate Lex Friesen, Devin Benson, a former Thompson Blazers’ defenceman and Medicine Hat Tigers’ draftee, and D-man Braden Smith, a Victoria Royals’ draft pick.
“We are expecting to lose some players throughout this year,” Kolle said. “You’ve got Braden Smith, who could be gone to the Royals when they fire up. Branden Toye, Owen Barrow, I believe they’re better than players junior A teams are carrying now. Devin Benson, same thing.”
The junior A B.C. Hockey League campaign is underway. The major junior WHL season is slated to begin on Jan. 8.
Aidan Sutter, an 18-year-old defenceman from Kamloops and Thompson Blazers’ graduate, is on loan to the Storm from the WHL’s Silvertips.
“This team is loaded with talent for this level,” Kolle said.
Jakob Drapeau, a 20-year-old goaltender from Prince George, enters the season as the Storm’s No. 1 netminder. Ryan Dusseault, an 18-year-old goaltender from Victoria, will back him up.
“We’re looking a lot more organized and a lot more prepared for the season to start,” Drapeau said when asked to compare this year’s club to the 2019-2020 Storm.
Forwards Brett Mero of Williams Lake, Chris Thon of Quesnel and Brendan Mucha of Kamloops round out the overage group.
Gainey, along with assistant coach Andrew Fisher, will engage in a chess match with the Knights and Heat staffs in Phase 1, the type of maneuvering usually saved for playoff series.
None of the soon-to-be familiar foes will have the luxury of familiarity with systems. Adjustments and creativity will be key, Gainey said.
“It’s going to get fun more toward the end,” Toye said. “Teams tend not to like each other after a while. Without fans, it’s going to be an interesting environment, especially when the game gets emotional.”
Officials have been mandated to keep players out of the crease and extended puck battles from happening in corners, both directives designed to hamper the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Gainey said pre-season games felt relatively normal, noting officials handled the changes well.
One member of the Kimberley Dynamiters tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 24, prompting the cancellation of two of the KIJHL squad’s pre-season games and a 14-day isolation period.
A positive test during phase 1 would wreak havoc on the schedule.
“If somebody from the Kamloops Storm comes down with COVID, I guess our whole group and everyone within that reach is going to have to isolate for 14 days,” Kolle said, noting his team will take instruction from public health authorities in the case of a positive test.
“We get one test, we’re out of business for 14 days. It means rescheduling games and all kinds of impacts. Ice bookings are tight. My fingers are crossed we don’t have to cross that bridge.”
There are 25 players on the Storm’s roster.
Ryan Dusseault and Jakob Drapeau are the goalies.
Devin Benson, Zack Vandekerckhove, Samuel Lewis, Aidan Sutter, Braden Smith, Carter Adams, Cole Senum and Brody Johnston are the blue liners.
The forward group includes Peyton Kelly, Chris Thon, Lex Friesen, Brett Mero, Jayden Russell, Harrison Ewert, Kasey Jackson, Brendan Mucha, Branden Toye, Zakery Anderson, Carter McLellan, Josh Hamling, Jameson Rende, Everett Rasmussen and Owen Barrow.
Peter Friedel is the team trainer.