Friday, 8 April 2016

Hurricanes were WHL's feel good story

Lethbridge might have more bright days ahead

The Hurricanes celebrate scoring a goal in Medicine Hat.
    In some ways, it felt like the Lethbridge Hurricanes playoff exit was too soon.
    Having missed the WHL post-season for the six previous years, a first round playoff series loss in five games to the Regina Pats would have seemed like a huge step forward for the Hurricanes at the start of the 2015-16 campaign. It still was considering a couple of years ago at this time it seemed like there was a death watch surrounding this team after it posted a 12-55-2-3 record in 2013-14.
    Things were so bad at times during the playoff drought that the Hurricanes were having trouble securing a radio broadcast deal at one point, which is highly unusual for a WHL franchise. There were also times the Hurricanes existence in Lethbridge was also called into question.
    Before the 2014-15 campaign started, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel, when the Hurricanes hired Peter Anholt as the club’s assistant general manager. Those that were familiar with the league over an extended period of time knew that would be an inspired move. If the Hurricanes went the next step and gave Anholt the keys to drive the car, the move would be even more inspired, because Anholt was a smart hockey man with the ability to build confidence in those that had been trampled on.
    About half way through the 2014-15 season, the Hurricanes board of directors did just that naming the veteran bench boss as the team’s head coach and general manager. The Hurricanes still finished second last in the league with a 20-44-5-3 mark, but they were no longer pushovers to play against under Anholt’s guidance.
Peter Anholt, left, played a big role helping revive the Hurricanes.
    Anholt used his time behind the bench to gain a better grasp of what he was dealing with. During the 2015 off-season, he set to work to help the Hurricanes take another step upwards. Deciding concentrate on the role of general manager, Anholt made a brilliant decision to hire Brent Kisio as head coach.
    Kisio, who was 32-years-old when he joined the Hurricanes, had spent eight seasons with the Calgary Hitmen mainly as an assistant coach and finished his tenure in Calgary as an associate coach and assistant general manager. Kisio was more than ready to run his own team as a head coach.
    Under Anholt, the Hurricanes proceeded to put together a roster that no one expected would create a dream season. The ‘Canes shot out of the gate and finished first in the WHL’s Central Division for the first time in 19 seasons with a 46-24-1-1 record. They also had spurts where they sat first in the entire WHL.
    With Kisio calling the shots behind the bench, the Hurricanes played with sound structure and were exciting offensively. The 304 total goals they scored in the regular season were second most in the league.
Cory Millette had 34 goals this season for the Hurricanes.
    Left-winger Brayden Burke was spectacular leading the team in scoring with 27 goals and 82 assists for 109 points. Captain Tyler Wong fired home a team-high 43 goals and added 46 assists to finish second in team scoring. Centre Giorgio Estephan had an amazing 30 goals and 44 assists in 59 regular season games.
    Red Deer product and 19-year-old defenceman Andrew Nielsen quarterbacked the power play and piled up 18 goals and 52 assists from the back end. Russian left-winger Egor Babenko had 29 goals and 40 assists as an 18-year-old rookie in the league.
    Overall, the Hurricanes had seven players score 20-or-more goals. Cory Millette, Ryley Lindgren and Justin Gutierrez rounded out the 20 goal men with 34, 27 and 22 tallies respectively.
    In goal, Jayden Sittler, who was in his 19-year-old season, and 17-year-old Stuart Skinner split time and played well. Sittler posted a 19-14-1 record, a 2.94 goals against average, a .905 save percentage and one shutout. Skinner was better recording a 27-10-1 record, a 2.73 goals against average, a .920 save percentage and three shutouts.
Brent Kisio worked magic being the Hurricanes bench as head coach.
    Skinner also made all sorts of highlight reels, when he scored a goal on March 18 at the Enmax Centre in Lethbridge during a 9-3 victory over the Medicine Hat Tigers. The hoarse and excited local radio call of that moment also made a number of comedy shows both in Canada and the United States.
    After six consecutive seasons of mostly misery, it seemed like everything was lining up to go right in Lethbridge. Anholt was named the executive of the year and Kisio took home honours the coach of the year for the WHL's Eastern Conference. One had to wonder how far could this Hurricanes run go. Could they win a WHL title and possibly the franchise’s first Memorial Cup championship?
    In their opening playoff game at home on March 25, the Hurricanes doubled up the Pats 6-3. From that point, the Pats proceeded to ruin Lethbridge’s party by winning the next four games to take the series. The Hurricanes saw their campaign come to an end on April 1 after a 7-2 loss at home to Regina.
Brayden Burke and the Hurricanes have a bright future.
    During the post-season, the Hurricanes might have learned a lesson about the will it takes to win at that stage of the game. The Pats made the second round of the playoffs last season and will begin a best-of-seven second round series on Saturday taking on the Rebels in Red Deer.
    The playoff elimination doesn’t change the fact that Lethbridge’s pride has been restored in the Hurricanes. It was common to see fan buses following the team out on the road.
    With the leadership the Hurricanes have in the front office and behind the bench, Hurricanes fans might want to start planning future road trips to follow the team besides renewing or purchasing new season tickets. It is highly likely that the Hurricanes will learn from the playoff loss and write an inspiring sequel to build on the accomplishments of the 2015-16 campaign.
    The ride on the Hurricanes train looks like it is just beginning.

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