By Scott Edmonds The Canadian Press
With no NHL hockey, at least for now, the Western Hockey League could be heading for a brisk year at the box office.
It’s already flexing on-ice muscle with the major impact its players are having on Canada’s junior teams and in the NHL draft.
“Obviously, we all hope the NHL is back playing as quickly as possible, it’s important for the game,” said WHL commissioner Ron Robison.
“Right now, we don’t see a real significant impact to start the season but, should this be an extended lockout, then perhaps as the season progresses we’ll see more coverage and more attendance.”
In the last full-season lockout in 2004-05, the Saskatoon Blades say they saw an increase of as much as 30 per cent in attendance. That would be especially welcome for some smaller cash-strapped franchises.
Just like the NHL, the WHL has issues with some of its smaller markets, admits Robison, but he said the model is working for the most part.
“We always have the challenge of the smaller markets competing with larger markets in our league and ensuring that we have a business model we can live with,” he said.
The regular 2012-13 WHL season starts Thursday, with the Kootenay Ice visiting the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Still loaded with future NHL talent (eight draft picks), last year’s WHL champion Oil Kings look like the team to beat again this season. But coach Derek Laxdal isn’t looking that far ahead.
“We’ve got five or six new players on our lineup this year and, like any team, you’re going to pick up injuries and you’ve got to go through the course of the season, so your journey’s going to be a lot different than it was last year,” he said.
He’s still pretty happy with what he sees coming out of the pre-season.
“We feel that where we are right now, at this part of the season, we’re stronger than we were last year.”
Central Division rival Kootenay that doesn’t appear to have the same depth this season, but Laxdal notes the Ice won the championship just a year ago.
“Kootenay seems to restock themselves every year and they’ve got Sam Reinhart, who is one heck of a player,” he said.
After finishing on top in 2011, the Ice made the playoffs in 2012 but were swept in the first round by Edmonton.
They still have a potent weapon in the person of centre Reinhart, brother of Oil Kings’ defenceman Griffin Reinhart, fourth pick overall in this year’s NHL draft. Sam is already rated as one of the top picks for the 2014 draft.
But big brother Griffin is still in the Oil Kings lineup, as are seven other NHL draft picks, including goaltender Laurent Brossoit.
The Ice lost six-foot-five goaltender Nathan Lieuwen to the Buffalo Sabres in the off-season and Sam’s talented brother Max Reinhart to the Calgary Flames.
Left-wingers Jesse Ismond, 55 points last season, and Joe Antilla, 44 points, both turned 21 and had to leave the WHL. So Kootenay is looking to do some rebuilding.
The Oil Kings have been forced to make a few changes as well.
“We lost Tyler Maxwell (21), we lost Kristians Pelss, who was signed by the Oilers, and we lost Rhett Rachinski and Jordan Peddle (both 21),” said Laxdal.
There are always trades to be made but right now they’re watching their crop of young players to see how they develop. So far, up-and-coming stars like Curtis Lazar, part of the under-18 team that won the Ivan Hlinka tournament again this year, are looking pretty good.
“Some of the kids who were in the third and fourth line last year have moved up,” Laxdal said. “Guys like Curtis Lazar, guys like Mitch Moroz and our new import, Edgars Kulda.
“We’ve had a couple of 16-year-olds who really stepped up this year. No. 96 is Brett Pollock … He’s a big centreman who will give us some depth and then, obviously, Dyson Mayo on the back end.”
Another Eastern Conference team from the East Division, the Saskatoon Blades, is also loading up on talent as it tries to capitalize on its position as host of this year’s Memorial Cup.
The 22-team WHL has four divisions in two conferences, the East and Central in the Eastern Conference plus the B.C. and U.S. Divisions in the Western Conference. There are five teams in the states of Washington and Oregon and, in Canada, the WHL stretches from Vancouver Island to Brandon, Man.
The Blades play the Raiders in Prince Albert on Friday in one of eight games that night as the season gets rolling in earnest.
“We made a trade earlier in the summer, bringing in three experienced players in Shane McColgan (and) Jesse Astles from Kelowna and Brenden Walker from Brandon,” said Blades coach and GM Lorne Molleken.
“With the addition of McColgan and Walker — their point total last year was in the 160-point range combined — we’re adding that number to our roster this year.
“We’re hoping that our younger players will take the step that’s needed and make this team very competitive and a team that has a chance to win the WHL championship, in preparation for the Memorial Cup.”
Walker also has Memorial Cup experience Molleken thinks will pay dividends.
Prince Albert has some potent scorers itself including Mark McNeill, Chicago’s No. 1 draft pick this season, Anthony Bardaro and Dallas draft pick Mike Winther.
But the Raiders are looking for better goaltending from off-season overage acquisition Luke Siemens. The Blades are happy with their returning No. 1 netminder, Andrey Makarov.
“He’s had a real busy summer,” said Molleken.
“(He was) disappointed that he didn’t get drafted in June but he played well in that Summit Series (for Russia) against our world junior team …
“He’s just recently signed an NHL deal with the Buffalo Sabres and he’s in a great frame of mind.”
The WHL is riding pretty high itself lately.
“We’re very proud of the fact that five of the first eight players selected in last year’s NHL draft were five defencemen from the Western Hockey League,” Robison said.
“When you look at Hockey Canada’s programs, the national junior team or under-18 national team or even the regional under-17 teams, a large percentage of those players are from the Western Hockey League.”
Nine of the 22 players who traveled to the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic this year were drawn from the WHL. The tournament traditionally showcases Canada’s best under-18 players.
While it has no plans to expand, the WHL still has markets like Winnipeg and Nanaimo, B.C., on its radar if it has to relocate franchises.
Nanaimo would provide competition closer to home for Victoria, the only team on Vancouver Island. The massive success of the NHL’s return to Winnipeg seems to have whetted the appetite of the WHL as well.
“Given our success in other NHL centers in Western Canada where we’ve co-existed very successfully, whether that be Vancouver or Calgary or Edmonton, we feel strongly that should we have relocation in the future, Winnipeg would be a top priority,” Robison said.