Even though the Peterborough Petes prematurely ended one of the Kamloops Blazers’ most successful eras in franchise history, it feels like there was some meat left on the bone with the group that head coach Shaun Clouston got to work with for his first four years with the club.
Everything over the past several years, most notably since the city earned the rights to host the Memorial Cup, had been leading to that moment.
The next time the Blazers take to the ice in September, the roster will no doubt be very different — absent at least Logan Stankoven and Olen Zellweger, who will likely get a look in the pro ranks, as well as graduating overagers Ryan Hofer, Daylan Kuefler and Ethan Brandwood.
“I came here four years ago, Logan had played little as 15-year-old and there are five guys in there that we spent four years together,” Clouston said after the Blazers hopes were dashed by the Petes.
“They probably say I’m hard sometimes and that I push them, but I really respect Logan and I respect the whole group. It’s hard when you get close and don’t get to where you want to.”
Years of middling success in the WHL playoffs and a dry spell for NHL prospects seemed to change following the 2018 bantam draft, when the Blazers nabbed hometown product Stankoven with the fifth overall selection.
He burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 WHL season, scoring 29 goals in 59 games as a key young piece in a strong veteran group.
Stankoven grew into a leader and has been captain of the Blazers for each of the past two seasons. He was also part of the leadership group for Team Canada at the most recent World Juniors.
PRESSURE WAS ON LAST SEASON
Kuefler said the Blazers knew they had to make the most of their season as Memorial Cup hosts.
“Knowing that no matter what happens, you’ll have a chance to play in the Memorial Cup, is a pretty exciting feeling,” recalled Kuefler.
“We still approached this year with the same mentality of wanting to win everything along the way, though. It’s just unfortunate that it didn’t end that way.”
From training camp back in August, the spotlight was always fixated on the Blazers and the group responded.
“I had conversations with other people prior to the year and they gave us some warning about how important it was to have a good start,” Clouston said.
“If we didn’t, there could be a lot of tension and pressure build up, as some people might doubt if we are good enough to host.”
The bench boss said his team enjoyed a strong training camp and started the season on the right foot with a 7-4-1-1 start over the first four weeks of the season.
By the time Stankoven and Bankier departed to represent Canada at the World Junior Championship in December, the Blazers were ranked 10th nationally with a 22-8-4-2 record.
TRADE DEADLINE BLOCKBUSTER
It’s hard to imagine anything more exciting than returning home with a gold medal, but shortly after the duo landed at Fulton Field, management turned the club from a contender into a powerhouse.
In one of the biggest deals in WHL history, Clouston and company landed blue-chip defenceman Olen Zellwegger and gritty 20-year-old winger Ryan Hofer in a blockbuster deal that saw the Everett Silvertips receive two players off the Blazers’ roster, a 15- and 17-year-old affiliated player and a mountain of nine draft picks — highlighted by four first rounders and one conditional pick.
“That was a really exciting time of year. It was great to see our management and coaching staff believe in us and provide a few more players to make a deep run. It was really encouraging to see,” said Stankoven.
From the trade deadline on Jan. 8, the Blazers torched the WHL, closing out the season on a 26-5-0-1 stretch, highlighted by an 11-game heater that occupied nearly all of February.
NEW GUYS FIT IN NICELY
The additions appeared to paid off in the boxscore. Hofer popped in 17 goals and 32 points in 30 regular season games with Kamloops.
Jakub Demek, who was acquired in a trade with the Edmonton Oil Kings, only skated in 15 regular season games but played a heavy style come the playoffs.
Zellwegger hit another level upon his arrival to Kamloops, sniping 22 goals and 30 points in 32 games, easily setting career highs in all stat categories, as he eventually named the CHL’s defenceman of the year.
“Just playing against guys like Zelly and Hofer in the past, you know how difficult they are to be out on the ice with,” Kuefler said.
“It was super exciting when those guys came in because they made an impact the second they arrived.”
By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Blazers got through the first two rounds unscathed, sweeping both the Vancouver Giants and then the Portland Winterhawks, setting up a rematch of last year’s Western Conference championship against the Seattle Thunderbirds.
The Blazers lost the series in six games and had some extra time to prepare for the Memorial Cup.
ROUGH START TO MEMORIAL CUP
The Blazers struggled out of the gate at the tournament, dropping the opener to the eventual champion Quebec Remparts.
The hosts throttled the Petes in Game 2 but lost the decisive round robin finale against the Thunderbirds that forced them into a tiebreaker against the Petes, which they lost in dramatic fashion.
It’s no coincidence that the Blazers turnaround began with the arrival with Stankoven, who likely finishes his career 12th on the club’s all-time scoring list with 260 points — despite having played fewer games than the 11 skaters ahead of him.
“He’s done a tremendous amount for this team and he’s been a big part of our success,” Clouston said of Stankoven.
“His success drove excitement in the community, brought in great attendance numbers and saw great support in the city. Each step in his career, he found a way to get better and be an example for the group that hard work and determination can pay off.”
Four straight division banners hadn’t happened since the late 1980s. Back-to-back conference final appearances hadn’t happened since the last time the Blazers appeared in the Memorial Cup (1993-95). Three Blazers have won major CHL awards and the pipeline from Mark Recchi Way to the pro ranks has reopened with 16 players who suited up under Clouston either getting drafted or signing a professional contract.
It will take some time for the players to get the bitter taste out of their mouths, though.
“It’s certainly one year we will never forget. There was always talk throughout the year about the Memorial Cup and there was always excitement around the team,” Kuefler said.
“It’s just unfortunate it didn’t work out the way we wanted.”
BLAZERS LOOKING TO FUTURE
The groundwork for future success is already being laid. Clouston said club brass is hard at work preparing for next season.
“Every year is strange when it ends — this one was a little tougher because we thought we were right there,” he said.
“But we have already had our exit meetings and are prepping for the upcoming CHL Import Draft.”
Unpredictability is the biggest obstacle facing the Blazers next fall, as not only will they need to replace three standout overagers, but as many as six players could potentially earn their way onto an NHL roster for opening night.
“There will be a big change next year with lots of guys being signed,” said Stankoven, one of the final cuts last year from Stars’ training camp.
“There could be some holes that need filling, but I think we have some great players returning and some younger guys hungry for more success. I’m looking forward to seeing what the team looks like next year.”