Though Tuesday night will ultimately go down in the record books as a road game for the Kootenay Ice, it could turn out to be a bit more of a home game than one might expect.
Ice head coach Luke Pierce, hired this summer after the departure of longtime Kootenay coach Ryan McGill, not only spent the better part of the past six seasons as the bench boss for the BCHL’s Merritt Centennials, he grew up in the Nicola Valley and played two years of junior hockey with the club he went on to coach.
When the Ice (6-19-2-0) take on the Kamloops Blazers (11-9-3-0) in Western Hockey League action Tuesday night at the Sandman Centre, it will mark Pierce’s first return to Interior B.C. as the head coach of a team not named the Centennials.
“It’s weird, I’m not going to lie. It’s extremely exciting,” Pierce said with a smile Monday morning ahead of practice at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook. “I grew up a big Blazers fan in the Jarome Iginla days, Darcy Tucker and all those guys, when they were winning Memorial Cups — that building was sold out every night.
“It’s cool to be there as a coach, and especially against a guy like Don Hay — it’s daunting, but it’s exciting.”
Tuesday night, the youngest coach in the WHL will go toe to toe with the oldest coach in the WHL.
On the visitors’ side — the 32-year-old Pierce is a rookie bench boss with 27 regular season games under his belt.
On the home side — the 61-year-old Hay is a battle-tested coach of nearly 1,200 WHL games and sits second in league history with 648 wins.
If that isn’t enough of a storyline, how about the fact there is expected to be a Luke Pierce/Kootenay Ice booster club travel to Kamloops for the contest, helping the first outing on a season-long, five-game road trip feel a little less hostile.
A fan bus is expected to depart Merritt for Kamloops Tuesday afternoon, bringing with it a load of fans eager to show their support for the 2013 BCHL Interior Conference Coach of the Year and his new charges.
“It means the world,” Pierce said. “I’m extremely proud of being from Merritt. They’re extremely loyal to the people who have opportunities to move on and represent the community.
“To see the response from the community in that way, it’s humbling. Hopefully our guys are ready to give them a good show.”
Pierce isn’t the only man on the Kootenay Ice bus eagerly anticipating a homecoming.
Rookie forward Max Patterson, a 15-year-old native of Kamloops, is set to suit up for his first game in his hometown as a member of the Ice.
“It’s really exciting,” said Patterson, a man of few words, Monday morning. “I’m excited to go back. Hopefully it’s a good game. My whole family is coming out and a lot of friends.
“It’s huge. It provides a lot of motivation to show them how you can play.
“We need play our game. We need to play hard, fast, physical, smart. We need to outwork them.”
Patterson and the Ice will look to snap a three-game skid Tuesday in Kamloops. Though the wins have been difficult to come by for a young squad, Patterson said the presence of Pierce both in the dressing room and behind the bench has been key to keeping steady through turbulent times.
“Every day we know what to expect,” Patterson said. “He’s a good coach.
“Most of all, it’s fun to come to the rink. Everybody loves to come to the rink because we know what to expect.
“It’s a lot more fun coming to the rink with a smile on your face.”
The 6-foot-4, 187-pound Patterson — a 2014 fourth-round bantam pick (77th) — has posted two goals and three points in 20 games to start his WHL career.
While Pierce and Patterson return to the B.C. Interior, one of the newest members of the Kootenay Ice joins the club without having left it.
Jesse Zaharichuk, acquired from the Blazers Sunday afternoon in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft, is expected to debut with the Ice Tuesday.
“Jesse’s been in the league,” Pierce said. “I think we can expect him to step in and play a pretty big role right away.
“Both kids seem really excited. The big part is keeping expectations tempered a little bit from our end.”
Also expected to make his Ice debut Tuesday evening is forward Austin Gray, who was acquired Sunday in a package deal with the Portland Winterhawks.
Zaharichuk is expected to debut wearing sweater No. 11, while Gray will sport sweater No. 20.
The Blazers are fresh off a 7-3 loss to the Prince George Cougars Saturday night.
After Tuesday’s tilt in Kamloops, the Ice carry on through the Interior to visit the B.C. Division-leading Kelowna Rockets (19-6-1-0) Wednesday night.