The Kootenay International Junior Hockey League’s 2023-24 regular season is two weeks in and four players have recorded hat-tricks. Three of those have come from rookies – Owen Dewitt (Sicamous Eagles), Luke Nottviet (Grand Forks Border Bruins) and Tysin Mulligan (Columbia Valley Rockies). The other is by Daytn Kulynych of the Castlegar Rebels, who is in his second season. Last season Kulynych recorded 14 goals in 44 games, but no hat-trick.
In goal, Rockies rookie Jaiden Jakubowski and Jozef Kuchalso, the KIJHL’s Top Goalie last season, have recorded shutouts.
Eddie Mountain Division
Columbia Valley Rockies head coach Tayler Sincennes felt his team played well after winning two of three games on a road trip that started in Castlegar (5-4 loss), then to Grand Forks (3-2 SO win) and finished in Spokane (7-4 win).
“As a group we would like to have Friday night back,” said Sincennes. “It was an impressive weekend, grabbing four of a possible six in the first road trip of the year.”
The first-year Rockies head coach felt his team played a solid, simple game against Grand Forks.
“There were a lot of bouncy pucks and we grinded it out,” he said.
Sincennes credited Mulligan for “playing the game the right way.” The Rockies were up 5-4 against Spokane when he scored twice late in the final minute of action to finish with three.
The Kimberley Dynamiters earned a 5-4 shootout win in Creston, then picked up a 6-1 win at home against Nelson. Dynamiters Head Coach Derek Stuart felt from the third period on in Creston they were solid and “probably deserved to get two points.”
“Ryder Ponto kept us in his debut Friday in Creston,” said Stuart of the rookie goalie who stopped 38 of 42 shots for his first KIJHL win.
Against Nelson, the Dynamiters went 3-for-9 on the power-play and Stuart said, “I thought it was our best game of the season.”
Tristan Weill led the team with five points, earning Top Forward for the Hudl Instat KIJHL 3 Stars, but Stuart was also impressed by rookie defenceman Jackson Murphy’s performance.
“He has been playing very solid,” said Stuart.
To keep building on their play, Stuart wants them to move pucks north and setting the tone early.
The Fernie Ghostriders earned a split in their last two games, picking up a 3-2 victory over the Creston Valley Thunder Cats. Head coach Ty Valin is seeing glimpses of what they need to do while working on consistency.
Valin noted that massive breakdowns against Nelson cost them, and they didn’t get the finish they needed. They’ve fixed their neutral zone play and focused more on play away from the puck.
“We were able to generate more offensive zone time, more time with the puck, as opposed to chasing,” said Valin.
Returning goalie Aiden Krulak has played in all their games and has a 3.01 goals against average with a .901 save percentage. Valin said Kruhlak is working to get back to playing like he was at the end of last season.
“He is hard on himself. He wants to put his best foot forward every day,” said Valin. “He’s like a pro. His preparation, work ethic, it’s all starting to pay off.”
The Golden Rockets lost to Beaver Valley 5-1, defeated Spokane 4-2 and lost in Castlegar 3-2 after leading 2-0. Rockets Head Coach Chuck Wight felt his team got better during the weekend.
“The Friday we just didn’t get into the game, get engaged enough,” he said. “Sunday could have gone either way, we just didn’t get that next goal. We’re a youthful team and learning what it takes.”
Wight said what can be learned from the Castlegar loss is “you can’t take a shift off.”
“The big part of playing in the KIJHL is being ready to give a full focus through the game. We did alright until certain points in the game,” he said. “We have to be more disciplined in places and positional play.”
The Creston Valley Thunder Cats had back-to-back losses to divisional opponents Kimberley (5-4) and Fernie (3-2).
“I thought they played really well. All of our losses have been one-goal games,” said Head Coach Brad Tobin. “I think bad penalties at bad times cost us a little bit of momentum late in games. Our 200-foot game is good, we just need to get a little more intensity coming out of periods. In Fernie, we had a great start in the first period, and then the intensity kind of dropped off.”
Landon Hedges, 20, was in on all the Thunder Cats goals in the Kimberley loss and has seven points in four games. Hedges, who had 23 points in 31 games in the 2021-22 season, didn’t play last season as he recovered from an injury as he also plays rugby. Tobin expects Hedges to bring energy and leadership. He has been playing with captain Luke Chakrabarti and Tyson Tokarz.
“He’s a guy that goes and digs pucks out for those guys and gets rewarded from the job he is doing,” said Tobin. “He is a power- forward so he uses his body (5-10, 180 pounds) pretty good on zone entry and net drives.”
Neil Murdoch Division
The Castlegar Rebels earned a pair of wins against the Columbia Valley Rockies (5-4) and Golden Rockets (3-2) after trailing to start. That’s what impressed Head Coach Nick Headrick.
“Even though the other team scored first, which usually determines the winner, we were able to fight back and get a four-point weekend,” said Headrick, adding the final 10 minutes against the Rockies was nerve wracking, feeling the Rockies coming, but “we didn’t break.”
“For us to be able to find a way to win even having our B effort was positive,” said Headrick. “Last year a lot of times, if we didn’t play a perfect game, we didn’t have an opportunity to win. We realize we’re a good enough team to beat teams on off nights.”
Evan Calder and captain Reid Gerrand impressed Headrick with their play.
Calder led with two goals and four points in two games and Headrick really likes how the Portage La Prairie, Manitoba native plays.
“He has grown a lot as a player,” he said. “I thought Reid Gerrand was really strong in the first game. He has put on a lot of weight and has helped our team a lot.”
Gerrand had two assists on the weekend.
The Beaver Valley Nitehawks have had a light start to their season, defeating Golden 5-1 for a 2-0 record.
“We like to play in the offensive zone and try our best to play hard defence in the offensive zone,” said Head Coach Terry Jones. “I liked how we were skating, the discipline that we played with and our goalie only had to make the first save. As usual Connor Stojan had another great game.”
Also having a big game was Ollie Clement, named the Nitehawks’ game star thanks to a three-point performance. He helped set up Cade Reber for the 2-0 goal. What Jones has liked is how hard Clement is working in practice.
“He has been really focused on playing every drill, shift,” said Jones. “He’s playing with a high level of speed and I thought he carried that into the game. I really love the intensity that he always plays with. He’s got a nose for the net.”
The Grand Forks Border Bruins had a big win over Spokane and a shootout loss to the Columbia Valley Rockies. Head Coach David Hnatiuk feels that after the opening weekend, his group is headed in the right direction.
“It’s almost like our first two regular season games were exhibition,” said Hnatiuk. “We never had everyone there until that weekend. I thought we dominated both games, just didn’t get the win.”
In their loss to the Rockies, Hnatiuk saw the players recognize their systems and build chemistry. He was very happy with their penalty-kill, going 3-for-3 after going 3-for-8 against Spokane.
Hnatiuk said they continue to work on combinations for the penalty-kill giving players opportunity.
The Spokane Braves lost three straight to Grand Forks (11-4), Golden (4-2), and Columbia Valley (7-4). Head coach Darin Schumacher said they need to do a better job with their defensive system.
“This is our focus for the next two weeks,” said Schumacher. “We are turning pucks over in transition and other teams are capitalizing quickly.”
Schumacher also plans to place more attention on the penalty-kill, which went 4-for-14 over the three games.
Bill Ohlhausen Division
The Princeton Posse special teams is having a strong start with the power-play executing at 24.1 per cent (7-for-29) and the penalty-kill at 89.3 per cent (3-for-28). Head Coach Mark Readman said it’s about finding consistency.
“Outside of the one unit, its fresh faces,” he said. “We’re trying to work other guys in different spots. We had a bit of success though the first weekend. Not so much the last two games.”
Their power-play is getting chances with strong puck movement and getting shot attempts from the areas they want to be in. Readman wants to build on the habits with the new players.
Jonathan Ward has looked strong on the penalty-kill, as has rookie Vinny Junek.
“They have created a pretty good formidable first pair,” said Readman, adding that he also uses Tyson Horiachka, Jalen McRae and Ty Russell, as well as rookie Jace Shuttleworth.
“It’s been a collective effort,” said Readman.
After back-to-back losses to the Kamloops Storm, the Kelowna Chiefs rebounded with a 6-2 win against the North Okanagan Knights on Tuesday. Head Coach Travers Rebman said they received great goaltending from Brendan Smith, who stopped 25 of 27 shots.
“It was nice to see the guys play our systems and have some better detail in their game,” said Rebman. “Anytime you can get a lead early it gives you extra energy and confidence and it allowed us to stick to our game and not have to push too hard to manufacture offence.”
While disappointed by the losses to the Storm, Rebman saw that “they weren’t that far off” after reviewing the games. Sunday’s loss had more to do with lapses and not receiving timely saves. Rebman added the team “also looked tired and were a step late everywhere, which left us chasing the game.”
Rebman praised Smith who has been solid in goal overall, with exceptional moments.
“He had a tough outing in Kamloops Saturday which happens,” said Rebman. “It was great to see him recover against North Okanagan and shut the door when they got their opportunities.”
The North Okanagan split two games with the Osoyoos Coyotes, then dropped a 6-2 decision to Kelowna on Tuesday. Head Coach Liam McOnie said they have a lot of room for improvement, especially with their compete and battle level.
“Our habits need to improve and we need to get back to simple plays and hard work,” said McOnie.
For their three-game roadtrip, McOnie focused on their defensive zone coverage, playing simple and hard, while being creative within their systems.
“Forechecking, retrieving loose pucks, winning puck races, getting shots and extended zone time are things we do well,” said McOnie.
He wants their lines to play uptempo and with high intensity.
After a 10-1 loss to the Princeton Posse, Summerland Steam head coach Morten Kjolby plans to get back to the fundamentals of “how we want to play.”
“Young guys learn by experience. Princeton is certainly a good team,” he said. “They are definitely very good in their own barn.”
Losing by that large a margin was also new to Kjolby, who talked to his players about the ups and downs of the game.
“When downs come, we have to embrace them the same way we embrace successes,” he said. “When you get run over like we did in Princeton, you have to learn from that experience.”
The Osoyoos Coyotes earned a split with the North Okanagan Knights last weekend. Head Coach Ken Law felt his team played well both games and likes how the teams match up.
“It was like a chess game,” said Law.
The improvements Law is seeing is from the players communicating and moving the puck quicker. He also talked about their need to focus on the defensive game.
“We got a better backcheck going. Just better D-zone cover,” he said. “They are starting to buy in and work as a team.”
Jarrod Gale, who returned from serving a three-game suspension from last season, led with three points in two games. Law said Gale led by example.
“He knew he owed it to the guys to come out and play with a lot of vigour,” said Law. “He pulled them along with him.”
Doug Birks Division
The Sicamous Eagles’ 4-1 September start looks nice, but Head Coach Nick Deschenes says the team is looking beyond September to ensure they are on a path to success.
“There are a lot of things to clean up,” he said.
Deschenes has his players focused on getting the puck and controlling it. When they don’t have it, he wants them to take away time and space.
“We had a lot of opportunities to do that more effectively this past weekend,” said Deschenes. “Take away space by being physical. When you play a team like Revelstoke, that brings good structure and intensity, if you don’t have structure, you can work as hard as you want, but you’re not going to be as effective against them. I think we kind of experienced that, it was a good lesson to learn.”
Deschenes said that goalie Dylan Marshall has played a factor in their record as he is 3-0 with a 2.00 GAA and a .943 SP. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native has stopped 100 of 106 shots in 180 minutes of action.
“I’d llke for the team to work with him a little more as far as the opportunities we have been giving up,” he said. “He needs to continue to compete and battle like he is and we have to continue to get better in front of him.”
The Chase Heat improved to 3-1 with a 5-1 win over the Kamloops Storm. After losing to Revelstoke 3-2, the Heat earned a 2-1 win in 100 Mile House.
Head Coach Brad Fox liked that they had really solid goaltending and “that was the foundation” of their play in those games. He felt there were areas they played well in.
“Essentially if you look at it, we’re still giving up too many shots,” he said. “We have to defend better. We need to manage the puck better. The upside is, the buy-in is there and commitment level is there.”
With goalie Meyer Gaume, his approach to camp and off-season work has translated to the regular season so far.
“One of the greatest to Gaumer is his DNA to compete and raise the bar to the standard of what everybody else is bringing to the table is very evident on a day to day basis,” said Fox. “Now with a year under his belt, the level of maturity coming with that, you are starting to see the ceiling that he can have.”
Fox said Kamloops got really quality looks at Gaume.
“When goaltenders are in that zone, they make difficult shots look relatively easy because they are not moving too much,” he said. “That’s a good feeling when you are on the bench.”
They’ve gone 3-for-14 on their power-play for 21.4 per cent and their penalty-kill has surrendered two goals on 20 chances, effective 90 per cent of the time. Braeden Huth leads the team with four goals and Mikkel Hrechka has two of their power-play goals.
The Kamloops Storm followed up back-to-back wins against the Kelowna Chiefs with a 5-1 loss to the Heat, whose goalie Meyer Gaume made 57 saves.
Head Coach Jan Ludvig credited the Heat for their smart play and “their goaltender was just incredible.”
“Early in the third, I remember standing and thinking, we’re not going to score on this guy again,” said Ludvig. “I don’t think I’ve been part of a game in my 58 years in hockey where we had 100 shot attempts, credited with 58 shots, and we lost 5-1.”
Ludvig added the Storm kind of beat themselves, giving the Heat, who played well, some gifts.
“I’m kind of glad that we lost because we have 10 days of no games right now. I think we were starting to feel pretty good about ourselves after being 3-0. The timing couldn’t be better for a wake up call and confirmation of how much more work we have ahead of us,” he said.
In their two wins, the Storm scored late which impressed Ludvig.
“We’re finding a way to win and that’s a skill. We play right to the end.”
After splitting their games last weekend, Revelstoke Grizzlies GM Ryan Parent said he saw productive things in both games.
In their 3-2 loss to Sicamous, they had six power-play opportunities they didn’t capitalize on.
“That was the game in essence,” he said. “I think we did most of the right things in order to win that game. We’ve got a lot of new faces in our dressing room, and I think that it will eventually get to the point where they are going to understand the way we want to play.”
Their penalty-kill has gone 17-for-17.
The 100 Mile House Wranglers are the lone KIJHL team without a win. The Wranglers lost 4-2 to Sicamous, their second straight loss to the Eagles and then lost 2-1 to Chase.
The Wranglers have been outscored 15-7 and haven’t struck for a goal on the power-play yet. Their penalty-kill, however, is at 85.7 per cent, allowing four goals on 28 opportunities.
Seven players have scored goals, including four rookies. Kelton Shinde’s first KIJHL goal came shorthanded.