By Woodard, Dale on July 9, 2020.
The 2019-20 Western Hockey League season will go into the books as the “what if” season for the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Like every team in the WHL – and across the Canadian Hockey League – the Hurricanes season ground to a gut-wrenching halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March, cancelling the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.
Hurricanes general manager Peter Anholt said he was optimistic the halt in play would only be temporary and his team could resume their playoff stretch drive and begin another post-season.
Realizing, however, the shutdown wasn’t temporary, being told the season was over and being sent home and told to stay there was a tough pill to swallow for the players, coaches and general manager alike.
“I think initially you’re hopeful that maybe you are going to come back and play,” said Anholt, whose team was 37-19-2-5 and in third place in the Central Division at the time of the shutdown.
“But as time continued on, that was less and less of a chance. I think there are different kinds of analogies -being kicked in the stomach, being sick to your stomach -there are so many of those types of analogies. I think anytime you build your team and the coaches did the job that they did with the team and you didn’t get a chance to do what you felt you had a chance at, that was the most disappointing part.”
The Canes GM felt especially bad for the team’s overagers, defencemen Koletrane Wilson, Ty Prefontaine and Brett Davis, who Lethbridge re-acquired at the trade deadline in January.
“For them to end their careers like that, they walked around here like they were zombies for a few days and it was hard to comprehend what they were going through,” said Anholt.
“Nobody has ever ended their career like that. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been in the game, nobody is experienced enough to experience this. The 20-year-olds were the most affected, I think. Every other player, they are either moving on or they are coming back with high expectations. I think they weren’t quite affected as the 20-year-olds.”
As the team geared up for the 2019-20 season late last summer, the number of new faces on board was enough to raise an eyebrow for Anholt.
“We only had one 19-year-old in (defenceman Calen) Addison coming back and that was very concerning to me,” he said. “Then of course we only had the two 20-year-olds (Wilson and Prefontaine), so we knew we were going to be a young team. The addition of Dino Kambeitz and Oliver Okuliar were huge additions for us. It gave us some 19-year-olds with some veteran experience and both played really well with their leadership and their compete and all those things. Even our veterans coming back, our older guys like Addison and (Dylan) Cozens to have the years they had, they were special this year. So that was a big part of any success that we had.”
When Addison and Cozens took a month-long leave of absence to go win gold with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship over the holiday season and New Year’s, Anholt noticed the players that picked up the slack in the interim.
“(Logan) Barlage stepped up and how Justin Hall stepped up and (Chase) Wheatcroft, guys that we really need to step up,” he said. “(Defenceman Alex) Cotton just kept on his pace without those guys in the lineup, which says a lot about him.”
The work of goaltenders Carl Tetachuk and Bryan Thomson didn’t go unnoticed.
“I think when you think of Tetachuk you think of a junk yard dog who just keeps battling,” said Anholt of the 19-year-old local product who went 21-12-1-5 last season. “He competes so hard and he rises to every challenge you give him.”
One year younger than his fellow goaltender, Thomson was 16-7-1-0 after a 3-1-0-0 season in 2018-19.
“Thomson we really, really like as a player and his potential,” said Anholt. “So we like those guys and we’re happy with them.”
As for converting last year’s youth into another Central Division contender before the season shut down, Anholt looked behind the bench.
“I think the job the coaching staff did led by (head coach) Brent Kisio was nothing short of spectacular,” he said. “We were one of the youngest teams in the league and we never used it as an excuse. We just forged ahead and kept on playing and kept on winning our share of games. That, to me, says a lot about what last year was all about.”
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