It’s go time.
And not between any ordinary Western Hockey League adversaries but longtime Central Division rivals.
The Calgary Hitmen and Kootenay ICE will open the 2015-16 WHL regular season slate in style with a home-and-home series.
The Hitmen make the trek to Cranbrook tonight for round one, while the ICE pay a visit to Calgary on Saturday evening for the Adrenalin Source For Sports Home Opener. Both tilts have a 7 p.m. puck drop.
Kick-starting the regular season against such a longstanding bitter rival can be akin to being thrown into a fire, however Hitmen head coach Mark French admitted he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“In some respects, it’s probably the best way,” said French, whose club ousted its divisional foes from last year’s playoffs following a grueling, seven-game first round series. “The two organizations have had some history, obviously, but I have always looked at facing rivals as a good thing because it can bring out the best in your team.
“But more importantly, we need to consider our younger guys, and we need to make sure they are comfortable, because it’s going to be a really big weekend for them.”
As pleased as the Hitmen head coach was with his team’s seven-game unbeaten record in the pre-season, he was more impressed by how his group gelled over the three-week course of camp.
“What we liked as a coaching staff was that we saw improvement throughout the group,” he said. “From our standpoint, we were trying to evaluate players, but at the same time we were trying to get our team game and identity laid out. And from the first weekend in Regina to the final weekend in Crowsnest I thought we saw the guys come together as a team both on and off the ice.”
French and his coaching staff are also delighted, and almost certainly relieved, with the return of forwards Pavel Karnaukhov, Chase Lang and Radel Fazleev, defencemen Travis Sanheim and Ben Thomas, as well as 20-year-old goaltender Brendan Burke, who up until this week were all attending NHL camps.
Only forward Jake Virtanen (Vancouver Canucks) and rearguard Keegan Kanzig (Calgary Flames) are still making their presence felt at the big league level.
Kootenay, meanwhile, will be seeking an 18th consecutive playoff appearance this season, the longest active streak in the WHL. They will, however, be required to achieve that feat without talented centre Sam Reinhart, who is 99.9 per cent likely to earn a spot with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
The ICE are also awaiting the return of St. Louis Blues forward prospect Jaedon Descheneau and Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, Russian defenceman Rinat Valiev.
Having all but one returning blueliner in the line-up this weekend should bode well for the Hitmen, who will need to be on high alert for high-scoring Luke Philp, who racked up 30 goals and a team best 82 points last season for the ICE.
Hitmen defenceman Jake Bean, who pieced together a standout rookie campaign of his own, believes the Hitmen, who captured last year’s Central Division crown, are positioned to strike in the Eastern Conference once again this season because of their depth.
“We had a pretty good season last year, so expectations are going to be high,” said Bean, who supplied six points in as many pre-season games from the blue line. “But I know everyone is confident that we can play to those expectations. From our goaltending out, we are looking really good. I know I’m excited to get going.”
Second-year winger Layne Bensmiller, 18, is also chomping at the bit for the regular season puck to drop.
And, really, you can’t blame the Rocky Mountain House native who is poised for a breakout season.
While four high-scoring Hitmen forwards were absent for much of the exhibition schedule due to attending NHL camps, the 5’11” 195-pound winger took full advantage by recording a team-high nine points and a plus-8 rating.
“I wasn’t doing anything different, just playing with a lot of confidence and that turned into finding the scoresheet more consistently. But when the team plays as well as we were playing in the pre-season, it makes it a lot easier to contribute offensively,” said Bensmiller, one of 18 potential Hitmen returnees.
“The start of the regular season should be a good test to see if we can keep the momentum going.”
Calgary Hitmen season tickets for the 2015-16 WHL campaign are still available. For more information on ticket packages and the exclusive privileges offered to Hitmen season seat members, such as the flexible ticket exchange program, visit HitmenHockey.com or contact customer service at 403-777-4646.