LETHBRIDGE HURRICANES: THE CASE FOR OPTIMISM
We have hit the dog days of summer. Hockey is the last thing on the mind of (most) people at this time of year. Generally speaking, this is the most lethargic period in the entire sports calendar. The frenzy of the NHL draft and free agency have died down, NBA finals are over, and we are left with a month long period of watching the Blue Jays annual post all-star demise – or tennis. Oh and the CFL, if that is your sort of thing (it’s not mine, but to each their own), and as thrilling as it is to watch Tiger Woods’ career collapse in upon itself like a dying star, I find myself anticipating late August and September more than ever.
Between the Oilers, Flames, and Hurricanes, local hockey fans are in store for some fantastic drama and entertainment this fall. The Hurricanes in particular have made some big changes both on and off the ice. With that in mind, are there reasons to be optimistic about the 2015-2016 Lethbridge Hurricanes?
Those who have followed the Hurricanes for any length of time are aware that optimism has been damaging to the psyche of fans. Since ’08, things have not gone well for the team on or off the ice. The issues have been well documented and I don’t need to get into them here. The point is that optimism has been hard to come-by for more than a few years. The last time I remember significant optimism from (some) fans and media was the summer leading into Drake Berehowsky’s first season coaching. I specifically remember some media members feeling confident that the youthful energy of DB would gel very well with a Canes team weary of the Rich Preston regime. Ultimately the Berehowsky era ended much the same way it began, the Hurricanes losing hockey games. Optimism quickly deteriorated into hate-filled vitriol and an increasingly disenchanted fan base.
Much has changed since then. I cannot emphasize this enough. Am I convinced all of the changes are good? Only time will tell – but I suggest there are more reasons to be optimistic than in years past.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you should now be aware that the Hurricanes will not be put up for sale (at least for the foreseeable future). Amidst the “sell the team” saga that unfolded over the past few months, the Hurricanes Board of Directors has quietly implemented major changes of both a logistical and ideological nature. One of the most impressive changes has been the realistic approach the BOD (headed by President Paisley) now has toward running the team. There appears to be a genuine desire for transparency and honesty. There have been no outlandish promises of playoffs and championships made. The new regime, at least publicly, has done a great job of tempering expectations and taking the necessary ‘baby steps’ needed to rebuild the integrity of this organization from the ground up.
Financially I am led to believe the BOD has played a leading roll in forcing some significant (and necessary) financial cutbacks and reallocation of resources. Simply put, under the old board, money was being spent based on unrealistic attendance (income) projections. This is no longer the case. The mentality needed to change and it appears it has. From all accounts, the team has redirected a portion of non-essential spending to improving the quality of life for the players. If this is true, I cannot express how positive this move could be for the external perception of the organization. The pattern of top-flight talent asking to be traded is one that absolutely needed to be stopped in order for the organization to stand any chance of surviving/thriving. Hopefully a player-focused organizational mentality can play a part in repairing the damage and eventually make Lethbridge a desirable location for young Bantam talent. Stability is essential for a major junior team to succeed. Remember that the majority of players on a WHL team are between the age of 16-19 years old. Having major off-ice instability and organizational question-marks can do severe damage to the development and mental/emotional confidence of young players (not to mention set their parents and agents on edge).
The change in BOD personnel and overall methodological transition gives me hope as an analytical observer that the Lethbridge Hurricanes are headed in the right direction as an organization and that we may begin to see the changes affect the on-ice product as early as this season.
Let me remind you that I strongly disliked the hiring of Peter Anholt as GM. I wrote about why in an earlier blog post, largely arguing that while Peter might be a great person and capable GM, the process of his hiring was a perfect example of why the Hurricanes have been managed in an amateur fashion. To summarize, my issue wasn’t with Anholt as much as it was about the organization needing to look beyond itself to find the best GM, not most convenient GM. Of course the team was/is financially hamstrung and Anholt made himself available, his hiring killed multiple birds with one stone.
With all that aside, I want to argue that GM Peter Anholt is another reason to be optimistic about this coming season. While I question his most recent trade (Kade Jensen to Broncos for a 4th Round pick), I believe he has played a big role in the evolution of organizations approach to management. Anholt, from all accounts, is a people person, capable of forming strong relationships and able to defuse conflict rather than escalate it. The ability to manage personalities is invaluable to an organization that is surrounded by question-marks and tough questions from Bantam parents and agents trying to give sound advice to draft picks. Anholt has not only managed to sign his own draft picks, but has also manged to sign Jordy Bellerive. Developing a relationship with Bellerive, Addison, and other highly touted draft picks may prove to be the tipping point for the Hurricanes organization reestablishing itself in the WHL. We will know for sure in two years when both players are able to make an impact – but I have more confidence in Anholt managing egos and personalities than other GMs the team has had in the past eight seasons.
Anholt has wasted no time in completely reshaping the leadership core of the team, bringing in a host of new overagers for the upcoming year. While I am very skeptical of the Jensen trade, I can only assume there were ulterior reasons we, as outsiders, will likely never know. From a hockey perspective the team got worse, leaving me to only assume that Anholt made the move out of conviction. I am not able to say more without speculation so I will leave it there, but I wish Kade Jensen nothing but the best with the Broncos. I think he will be a great player for them.
Overall, how he was hired is in the past. I think Peter Anholt has done a sound job of establishing some stability, rationality, and used his relational nature to repair previously damaged connections. All of these bode well for the team moving forward and I believe Anholt is another reason to be optimistic for the upcoming year.
I don’t have much to say about this one. Clearly things weren’t working with Preston, Berehowsky, or Anholt for that matter (though some will debate) so the new coach has nowhere to go but up. The bar couldn’t be lower and even a marginally successful season (.500 hockey or so) would be a great start for Brent Kisio. I don’t say any of that in a demeaning or negative manner. I genuinely believe that with the new leadership of players, and a new voice under Kisio, the team has a chance to develop a strong identity and win some hockey games. Unlike Berehowsky, Kisio is a young coach that actually has great familiarity with the WHL and has been part of a strong, successful organization for a number of years. I believe he will be highly motivated to prove his doubters wrong and emerge from the shadow of his father.
Of course it is possible that the team struggles out of the gate and Kisio is in way over his head. That is always a possibility and fans have reason to be skeptical. But again, the bar is set so low, I would be shocked if the team came out of the gate slower than they have the past few years. It would almost be impressive if they managed to be equally as bad.
Kisio is a reason to be optimistic not because he is proven (he isn’t as a head coach), but because sometimes change is good in-and-of itself. In this case, I believe it bodes well for the team to have a head coach that will implement strong systems, and indirectly, help Anholt be a better GM by not having to coach and manage simultaneously.
Further, the Canes also hired a top flight athletic coach, local Trevor Hardy. Hardy is a serious athlete and trainer with a history with the team. He runs his own training facility and has been a pillar in the Southern Alberta MMA fighting scene. Hardy is a high level professional when it comes to fitness, and I am optimistic that his energy and dedication will positively impact the players this coming year. There were questions asked about the fitness level of players during the Preston years and I think hiring Hardy is a sign that the team wanted to bring on a new voice. Hardy has been working with the players since May, and I anticipate we will see a well conditioned team come September.
It seems to me that the players are excited about this up coming year. Paul Kingsmith had a number of great quotes in his article about the hiring of Kisio from players talking about their anticipation for the Fall. Do hockey players often say things they don’t mean? You bet they do. It’s all part of being a professional athlete. Players need to say the right things and avoid drawing attention to themselves. But in this case, I actually believe that the players are excited to get back to Lethbridge. There are lots of things to be excited about. New coach, new training, strong top-down vision, ownership stability (for now). It makes sense to me that guys like Tyler Wong who have been here for a long time are actually very excited for what is to come.
We also have Andrew Nielsen and Georgio Estaphan coming off being drafted to the NHL this Spring. These two young players will go off to NHL rookie camps and maybe even get a look at the pro camp, gaining valuable experience and motivation. Having both of these players drafted is fantastic for the organization as it shows younger players that this market is capable of producing top talent and that Lethbridge is a good place for them to continue their development and pursue their dream of playing in the NHL.
We will also see the advent of a new leadership core early this season – a development that should be interesting to watch. Who will step up and be named captain? How will long term leaders like Wong work with the new overagers brought in by Anholt? Don’t forget about Jordy Bellerive (pictured).
I think for all the reasons above, and a variety of others, the players are a reason to be optimistic about this up coming year. I for one am excited to see the further development of the NHL drafted players, and lets not forget, we have the privilege of watching Stuart Skinner night in and night out. If Kisio is able to implement some effective defensive systems and cut down on the Canes’ shots against, I think Skinner could have a breakout season and establish himself as one of the best goaltenders in the league (if he isn’t already).
ABOUT THE FANS
Is Lethbridge excited for the new season? From what I have heard season ticket sales are up considerably from previous years. Is there a buzz in the city? I wouldn’t go that far but that may change as the season gets closer. This is a topic I would love to talk about with those of you who are regular blog readers (or if you are new here).
Are you optimistic? Why? Are you pessimistic? Why? What do you need to see from the organization before you get on-board or are you already “all in”? Will you commit to season seats? Why or why not?
I understand that for every point I raised for optimism, some may try argue there is equal reason for pessimism and concern, but if that is your perspective, I want to hear why.
When I first started writing this blog a few months back, I came out very hard on the team. I still hold to all of those convictions, meaning I hold to my words(s). I will remain analytically critical of this organization until it has earned the trust of fans and followers alike by establishing itself as a winner. However, I absolutely must give credit where it is due and I also believe firmly in the content of this article. I am happy that things are looking up for the team and I hope the community gets behind the players, Kisio, and Anholt as they work hard to make the Hurricanes are great team.
Are there reasons to be optimistic about the 2015-2016 Lethbridge Hurricanes? If the team struggles in the first two months everything mentioned above could come spiraling down, but for a brief moment in July, I think there are plenty of reasons to think positively about the Lethbridge Hurricanes.