The Kamloops Blazers are on pace to do something that they haven’t done in two long years: deliver the Blazer-crazy people of Kamloops some Western Hockey League playoff action.
These last two years without the playoffs must have come as a bit of a culture shock to long-time Blazer fans as the team had only missed the playoffs two times in the previous 31 seasons. Those winning seasons included a streak of three Memorial Cups in four years, a period of time where Kamloops was considered the mecca of junior hockey in all of Canada, producing multiple future NHLers such as Scott Niedermayer and Jarome Iginla on the ice as well as Tom Renney and Ken Hitchcock behind the bench.
At the time of writing the Blazers are just over halfway through their regular season schedule and have 44 points in 39 games played: good enough for seventh in the Western Conference, six points clear of missing the playoffs.
The braintrust behind the Blazers has taken the patient route in rebuilding what they hope will be a playoff team, relying on draft picks, the maturation of players that stuck with them through the rough years and the return of a key component of the glory days behind the bench in the form of Don Hay.
The game against the Tri-City Americans, a team that is battling with the Blazers for one of the last remaining playoff spots, that took place Friday, Jan. 8 can be looked at as a microcosm for this Blazers team in general.
Only two players stood out for the Blazers in the first period: goalie Connor Ingram and defenceman Ryan Rehill.
Tri-City started the game as the much more motivated team and the Blazers struggled to touch the puck in the first 10 minutes, let alone mount any offence. The pressure grew on the Blazers’ net but Ingram stood tall, stopping multiple odd man rushes and only allowing one goal during the period despite spending most of it under siege.
The other major factor in the Blazers escaping the first period down just the one goal was Rehill. The 6’ 3” 220-pound defenceman was everywhere: blocking shots, throwing hits and doing everything he could to keep his team in it.
If the story of the first period was the play of Ingram and Rehill then it was the top forward line of Matt Needham, Deven Sideroff and Collin Shirley for the Blazers that gave the 4,000 plus fans in attendance something to cheer about in period number two.
Needham put the Blazers on the scoreboard just twenty seconds into the second period, but he wasn’t done there. He went on to pounce on a loose puck and bury it in the net to give him and the Blazers two goals in under three minutes to start the second.
The rest of the game was a back and forth affair that truly came alive when Kamloops native Maxwell James made a nice play to find Dylan Coghlan alone in the slot. Coghlan would make no mistake, tying the game up for the Americans with just over 11 minutes left.
It was the top line of the Blazers that again answered the call when they were needed most. Shirley went for a skate in the American’s zone with eight minutes left in the game, circling around the Tri-City defenders multiple times before throwing the puck on net, allowing Needham to bang home the rebound, completing his hat-trick of the night.
That 3–2 lead would stand up the rest of the game, with some help from Ingram who was able to shut the door on multiple scoring chances late in the game.
As the Blazers stand right now, they are in the first positive year of the multiple-year process that a roster rebuild entails. They have a nice mixture of young and veteran players along with the leadership of a coach that has seen everything that the WHL has to offer.
Best of all for the fans of the Blazers, all of these components seem to be combining to bring a playoff hockey team back to a town that expects nothing less.
Photos by Tristan Davies