May 30th, 2024

Hurricanes faced challenges in 2021

By Dale Woodard on December 30, 2021.

The Lethbridge Hurricanes began 2021 with the start of their season repeatedly getting yanked from in front of them, a trend that actually started in late 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the Western Hockey League finally returned in February, it was a quick 24-game sprint against only Central Divisions teams with no playoffs or a championship to play for.

But as October rolled around, the Canes were back for real as they skated into their 2021-22 season, fans and all.

Still, the pandemic that shut down their 2019-2020 season in March almost two years ago still made for a rollercoaster 2021 for the Hurricanes as the team now gets ready to skate into the 2022 portion of their season.

“It was a real struggle,” said Hurricanes general manager Peter Anholt. “One, I give our players credit for being as patient as they were and to stay with us and understand we were trying to have a season at some point.

“Secondly, and maybe more importantly, that the owners around our league were open to having a season even though they knew it was going to be a real cash drain on all the organizations.”

They pulled it off, but it was still stressful, said Anholt.

“To try and get through those weeks of testing every week and the worry of possibly getting shut down and having to quarantine for 14 days and putting your players and kids through that, nobody wanted to do that. We were really fortunate to be able to do the things we did.”

They did so with accommodations both on and off the ice that kept the players in their safe bubble away from outside contact.

“We had a really good facility with the apartments that were nice and close and our guys were fed really well through the whole process,” said Anholt. “It wasn’t perfect, but we did the best we could to give our kids a chance of development.”

On the ice, the Canes went 9-12-3-0 in the shortened season in empty arenas and games solely in Alberta with no borders – provincial or international – crossed due to COVID.

“I think we don’t have to look much further than the Ontario Hockey League to see how it affects your league if you don’t play,” said Anholt. “We managed to play, so I think that was really positive that we gave our players something and they could continue to develop on the ice, but also get their year of education in for later on if they do happen to use their education package.”

Still, not playing for a championship made for a different season, said Anholt.

“But ultimately when the puck is down on any given game you still want to win and be successful. I think that was accomplished and when it was all said and done, mission accomplished, but we were certainly glad when it over”

The 24-game season allowed some Hurricanes rookies to get a bit of taste of the WHL.

Still, Anholt noted the shortened season didn’t give those players a true read of a full WHL season and everything it entails.

“That was kind of an interesting phenomenon in a sense because I think in some way the young guys got a chance to experience our league, I call it Western League Lite,” he said. “But it maybe gave them a false impression, too, of our league. It’s such a hard league and I think we’ve seen some young guys around our league who have struggled a little bit because of how hard our league is with the travel and so on.

“It’s a mixed bag for me. I’m really happy our young guys had a chance to experience it and maybe for our older guys to be able to finish off their careers in some way, shape or form and move on to bigger and better things.”

As the Hurricanes headed into training camp in September, 18-year-old forward Ty Nash took a brief leave to attend the Carolina Hurricanes camp.

The product of Scottsdale, Arizona has nine goals and 19 points in 24 games in the first three months of the season.

“I think any time a guy can play up and get an opportunity to experience the pro game and a pro camp, you get a guy like Ty who would really embrace that and he did embrace it,” said Anholt. “It helps everybody. It helps us and our organization and it helps the individual player. But I think ultimately that’s what we’re all about here. We want guys to have an opportunity to move upwards and onwards and play pro and hopefully he can take that experience and make himself a better player.”

The Hurricanes wrapped up the 2021 portion of their schedule with a pair of wins over the Medicine Hat Tigers that puts them one game above .500 at 12-11-2-0 at the break and into a tie for eighth place in the tight Eastern Conference standings with the Swift Current Broncos and Prince Albert Raiders.

After a quick start to the season that included a 9-2 win over the Calgary Hitmen in their season and home opener Oct. 1, the Canes hit a skid in November, losing six games in a row from Oct. 30 to Nov. 11.

Heading into the Christmas break, the Hurricanes have taken nine of 10 points in their last five games, the sole setback a 3-2 overtime loss to the Red Deer Rebels, to claw one game above the .500 mark.

“I think we’ve faced some adversity that is really unique this year for our hockey club,” said Anholt. “In our first eight or nine games I thought we played pretty well. Then we hit a bit of a wall where I thought we faced some real adversity and some guys were struggling through that time. But our coaches did a really nice job of getting us back on the rails and I think our last 11 games have been really solid. We’ve played like we normally played over the years. I give our coaches a lot of credit for that, to take a team through a time they really struggled and get it back on the rails and play well. In any given game in the last 11 we’ve played well and have been in all of the games and made it hard on our opponents.”

Heading into the season, Anholt made it clear 19-year-old goaltender Bryan Thomson was going to be the man in the crease for the Canes.

The product of Moose Jaw has seen the lion’s share of the play with Jared Picklyk as his backup, playing in 21 games and posting a 9-10-2-0 record to go along with a 3.30 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage.

“He’s been good,” said Anholt. “I think like every one of our 19-year-olds, we’ve had some ups and downs with them. But I think he’s really been a solid player for us and given us a chance to win on any given night, especially lately for sure. He’s really taken his game to another level. If we could just eliminate the one weak goal a game or that type of thing where he eliminates that then I think he’s going to take himself to a whole different level. So we’re really pleased with him. There’s more there and I think he can go to a whole different level yet in the second half.”

On Nov. 5, the Hurricanes made a move in their overage ranks, dealing defenceman and Detroit Red Wings prospect Alex Cotton to the Vancouver Giants in exchange for prospect Hunter McInnes, a third, fifth and sixth round pick in 2022 and a fourth-round pick in 2023.

Shortly after, the Hurricanes brought in overage defenceman Kade Nolan from the Portland Winter Hawks in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2023 WHL bantam draft.

In 11 games since arriving in Lethbridge, the native of Rouleau, Sask. has four assists and has gone plus-four.

“I think it’s really obvious that since he’s been here, we’ve been better,” said Anholt. “He’s stabilized the back end. When you see how he’s partnered with (Nolan) Bentham, I think Bentham has been a better player for us and I attribute that not just to Bentham, but also to Nolan. We’ve played better as a team since he’s come in and to give credit where credit is due, I think a lot of it has to do with the addition of him.”

Meanwhile, overage forward Justin Hall has led the Canes in scoring through the first three months with 12 goals and 28 points in 25 games.

The product of Edmonton had a five-point night in the season opener against Calgary and posted a six-point outing Nov. 19 against Medicine Hat at the Enmax Centre.

He has had seven multi-point games this season and is on pace to surpass his season-high 36 points he had in 61 games in the 2019-20 season.

“I think on any given game he’s one of the best guys on the ice,” said Anholt of the forward he selected in the seventh round and 140th overall in the 2016 bantam draft. “He competes really hard and I still think he can take his game to a different level, too. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Justin Hall yet. I think there’s more there. He is certainly one of our key guys and our go-to guys and a big-time leader for us. He’s been with us for four years. He was a fringe player when he first came here and he has really made himself a bonafide leader in our league. That’s awesome to watch and see how that develops.”

At the beginning of the season, the Canes made the captain’s C shared honour, handing it to forward Jett Jones and defenceman Joe Arntsen.

In his third season with the Hurricanes, Jones has eight goals and 15 points in 25 games.

Also in his third year in Lethbridge, Arntsen has three goals and 10 points in 25 games.

“It’s hard being a leader in junior hockey nowadays,’ said Anholt. “I think there are so many different types of pressure that you have on you and how leaders have to deal with each player a little bit differently as do coaches. I think Joe and Jett are continuing to learn that role and we see them as strong people and strong leaders that have been with us for a number of years and we’re proud of them.”

The COVID-19 pandemic did more than cut the Canes 2021 season to 24 games, it also moved the WHL prospects draft to Dec. 9.

Picking 10th overall, the Canes created a buzz when they selected Miguel Marques from the Delta Hockey Academy U17 AAA and then defenceman Tristen Doyle of the Northern Alberta Xtreme U18 Prep team 17th overall.

The excitement kicked up a notch when the Hurricanes were able to bring Marques in the next night against the Rebels at the Enmax Centre.

Playing on a line with Jones and Noah Boyko, the 15-year-old from Prince George gave a preview of what’s to come with a pair of scoring chances in the first period.

“We were excited as can be about him and that we were able to get him in here right away and be a part of things immediately,” said Anholt. “It was a really fun night for everybody. I think when you look at it, we really like our ’05 (born players) led by (Logan) Wormald and (Noah) Chadwick. Those guys are really going to be key guys for us. Then add the ’06s we’ve recently drafted. Marques is going to be a big part of the success of the Hurricanes down the road. We wanted to add skill and that’s what we’ve done. I think we all saw it that night, that he was able to create the chances he did and normally he scores on those chances from what I’ve seen when I’ve seen him anywhere else. But he’s going to be a big-time player for us and he’s going to be a pro for us at some point down the road.”

With the calendar about to turn to 2022, the Hurricanes look to build on their strong end to 2021 and climb back into the playoff fray in the Eastern Conference.

“After the adversity we were faced with through the start of the year I just hope we can keep getting better,” said Anholt. “We’re still a big, strong team and I hope we can be hard to play against. If we can keep getting better and get into the playoffs in some way, shape or form, being a big team, who knows how that shapes up. But first and foremost, we have to find a way to slide into the playoffs.”

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