Winnipeg Ice the hottest club in entire 60-team Canadian Hockey League
In 3rd season in Winnipeg, WHL team is 'dominating, and it's great hockey to watch,' fan says
The Winnipeg Ice are on fire, finding a way to the Canadian Hockey League penthouse after serving as doormats for a number of years.
"They're doing awesome. They're dominating, and it's great hockey to watch," said fan Billy Ranville, decked out in an Ice ball cap and jersey, watching the team dial up yet another victory Thursday — this time, a 4-1 win over the Red Deer Rebels.
"I wear it proud. Go, Ice, go."
Thursday's win improved the Winnipeg team's record to 13-1 so far in the young season, well atop the 22-team Western Hockey League — one of the three junior leagues (along with the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) that are part of the umbrella Canadian Hockey League organization.
The Ice also sit at the pinnacle of the 60-team CHL's weekly top-10 rankings.
As of Friday, the Ice had scored 76 goals in their 14 games this season. The next closest team in the WHL had 56, and the league average was 35.
Twice this season, the Ice have netted 10 goals in a game — both 10-2 wins — along with an 8-0 thrashing.
"I hope it does, but I don't expect that to continue," Ice head coach James Patrick said of the team's knack for piling up goals.
It's a long way from the Kootenay Ice team that relocated from Cranbrook, B.C., to Winnipeg before the start of the 2019-20 season.
During their last season out west, the Ice won 13 of 68 games. Two season before that it was 14 of 72, and before that, just 12 of 72.
The upside to those low years was high draft picks of promising young players, who are now experienced 19- and 20-year-olds.
"We're starting to reap the benefits," said Patrick, a Winnipegger and ex-NHLer who is in his fifth year as bench boss.
'This organization has come a long way'
The team is talented top to bottom throughout its four lines. Three players still with the Ice have been drafted by NHL clubs. Several others are top prospects for upcoming NHL drafts.
But this season's early success is also a bit of luck, Patrick said. Some teams had injury issues while others were missing star players who hadn't yet returned from NHL camps.
Those teams will get better as the season continues and figure out how to slow the pace of the Ice, Patrick said.
"It's a lot tougher to score in March than it is in September or October," he said.
The team's first defeat this season came with a 3-1 loss in Edmonton on Oct. 29. That snapped a 16-game winning streak that dated back to the previous season. Stung by that loss, the Ice routed the Lethbridge Hurricanes 7-0 the following day.
The 11 consecutive victories out of the gate this year fell one short of the WHL's all-time record to start a season.
"It feels awesome. This organization has come a long way since I joined it," said goalie Gage Alexander, 19, who was selected in the 2021 NHL draft by the Anaheim Ducks.
"It's a very good time to be around this team and everyone's happy to come to the rink every day, which is a huge thing."
The Ice improved in their first year in Winnipeg, finishing ninth and making the playoffs. But the 2019-20 season was abruptly cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020-21 season was also a COVID-shortened one that saw the WHL's seven teams from Saskatchewan and Manitoba play exclusively in a Regina bubble. The Ice finished the 24-game season at 18-5 and one point out of first in their division, but there was no post-season.
"Certainly we've gotten off to a good start," said Patrick, a first-round pick in the 1981 NHL draft who played with four teams from 1983 until 2006.
"We knew, coming out of the bubble, that a majority of our players were returning [this season] and just felt for the last four years we've gotten better every year."
Building a fan base
In addition to experience, Patrick credits the team's prosperity to players' leadership, particularly from Peyton Krebs, who was a rookie in 2017 and became captain in 2018.
"He was a special player, special person," Patrick said, calling Krebs the most driven athlete he's ever seen. "He really set the standard."
Those infectious habits and passion were passed on to the younger guys. Lines push each other, feed off each other and raise each others' level of play, he said.
Krebs is now in the NHL, selected 17th overall at the 2019 NHL draft by the Vegas Golden Knights.
This week, he was part of a high-profile trade that saw disgruntled star Jack Eichel moved from Buffalo to Vegas. Krebs is now a Sabre.
His role with the Ice has since been picked up by Carson Lambos, an 18-year-old Winnipegger drafted 26th overall by the Minnesota Wild earlier this year, said Patrick.
"It becomes cyclical — how you work, how you train, how you interact, how you practise, how you treat people," he said.
The players have fully bought in to that culture of professionalism, said Alexander.
"We've got a really good group here and we know what it takes to win in this league," he said. "We all want to get better every day."
That drive has drawn fans to 1,600-seat Wayne Fleming Arena at the University of Manitoba, who let the team feel their appreciation.
"Every game there's more and more fans out there and they get louder and louder, so it's a huge help on our side and it makes our job a lot more fun," Alexander said.
Among them is superfan Gabriel Langlois, better known as Dancing Gabe — an enthusiastic fixture at games for Winnipeg's Jets, Blue Bombers and Goldeyes.
"They're the No. 1 team in the country already. They're amazing," Langlois said after a rousing jig in the stands on Thursday.
Bryan Smith took in his first Ice game Thursday. He bought a souvenir puck to commemorate the day and said he intends to be back.
"I feel like a kid all over again," Smith said, adding he came specifically to see Sequoia Swan, a player from Lake Manitoba First Nation.
"I hope they go all the way, make Winnipeg proud."